By Bradley Ward
One of the downsides of immersing yourself within a particular creative field is that the continued exposure to it will eventually dull your susceptibility to surprises. After a few years of studying your beloved creative outlet, you begin to identify the same techniques and patterns across the most disparate of pieces and the ability to legitimately shock you becomes valued currency. The lengthy theatre drought we have all experienced this year has left me itching for something different. It is both fitting and deeply satisfying then that the first show I have reviewed since March left me literally whispering to myself, “What the f#*k am I watching?”
The Preacher, written by Anthony Noack, thrives on misdirection and illusion. A quick glance at its blurb on the Melbourne Fringe website leaves you with a vague collection of details that point towards stand-up comedy with a spiritual bent, and the show maintains that illusion for a while. After a quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes, we meet our “comedian” for the evening, David ‘Dave’ Davidson, who is coming to us live from a black and blue void in the middle of COVID isolation. With a glass of wine at his side and a microphone that leads to nothing, David begins his comedy routine: his awful, hackneyed comedy routine. David addresses his invisible audience with the energy of a middle-aged Sunday School teacher, delivering his punchlines with the lilting voice of a Playschool presenter, permeating each joke with the grating cliché “What’s the deal with that?”. The act is just subtle enough for you to believe it’s real, and just inoffensive enough to stop you from turning the computer off. It is a deft balancing act, and one that is crucial to the eventual reveal of what this show is actually about: a one-man meditation upon suffering, religion and meaning. Without shifting tone for a moment, the comedian slowly transforms into the preacher of the title, bringing his “My First Stand-Up Show” energy to long and weighty philosophical diatribes. The script does not pull any punches, trusting its audience to keep up its rapid-fire musing; the one-liners, previously a cause for groans, now serve as moments of much needed levity; even the repetition of “What’s the deal with that?” takes on a new life, becoming much more absurd and sinister when applied to questions of existence rather than observations on the weather.
Whether you will enjoy this show or not comes down entirely to whether you think a show can sustain itself on a single premise. If you are happy to spend an hour watching a man interrogate the line between comedian and preacher while delving deep into theological and philosophical thought, then you are in for a good time. If you are someone who likes a solid narrative and relatable characters, you may find this show frustrating, especially when it drops hints at something greater beneath the surface. The titular preacher occasionally lets slip personal details, none of which sound particularly pleasant, all while throwing back glasses of wine: an intriguing tapestry of a broken or flawed man. These hints are for nought though, as they serve more as stylistic embellishments or segues into new segments rather than signposts towards a narrative twist. While moments of passion do creep through the pleasant tone the preacher works so hard to maintain, they are isolated moments. You walk away from this show knowing very little about the man we’ve spent the last hour with or the world he comes from. This is a one-man show without the usual trappings of a one-man show.
The Preacher is a show that set out to interrogate one specific concept, and in this reviewer’s opinion, it achieves its goals admirably. Noack brings the ancient figure of the preacher into the modern day, finding an analogous figure within that of the stand-up comedian. Mission accomplished. Beyond that, there is great pleasure to be found in the musings of our central character. The piece swings wildly from subject to subject, mining deep veins of theological thought that, when expressed through the calm and pleasant voice of a fledgling stand-up comedian, take on shades of existentialism, absurdism or even nihilism. It is almost impossible to walk away without some fragment of the monologue caught in your head. If that still doesn’t sound like enough for you, then I still encourage you to watch it, even if it is just to satisfy an addiction for a piece of theatre that is a little bit different.