There is more to this play than a tired religious debate, writes Sophie Zeldin-O’Neill.
Catherine Trieschmann’s play finds an apt setting in the cosmopolitan enclave of the Arcola Theatre. Scrambling past the bewitched alleyways of Hackney and through the surreal hoards that comprise a Dalston Friday fug, the glow from the theatre’s entrance felt like divine intervention. You want to have the church and state debate, mate? You’ve come to the right place.
Like a notebook-toting Julie Garland, I crossed the cobbles and landed feet first in the studio space, amid the almighty rage of a hurricane, wondering where on earth I’d put my pen. But just as Kansas ebbed into the back of my mind, I found myself right back there.
The biology classroom that the audience initially finds itself in has all the usual characteristics of a high school, but then you learn that it is in the process of being rebuilt following a devastating tornado. And as you witness the conflict between pensive creationist teenager Micah and his evolutionist Science teacher Susan, things start to get real.
This first scene goes off with a big bang, and you are left to muse proceedings beneath the glittering cosmos projected across the canopy ceiling, a device deployed to great effect throughout.
It was difficult to grasp why Trieschmann chose to channel the debate through the mouths of a religious country ‘hick’ in one corner and an East Coast educator in the other. I found this use of stereotypes a little frustrating at times, and felt that it was perhaps speaking more to a US audience who might recognise that particular brand of division more personally.
I was initially bewildered, too, by the decision to make the central character someone who had experienced the traumatic premature loss of his mother, but far from being a two-dimensional case of ‘I lost, and have therefore found’, the complexities surrounding how his grief affected his relationship with religion were thoroughly compelling, drawing out the inherent fear that can accompany both faith and non-belief.
Amid the absence of his parents, Micah’s de facto guardian takes the form of Ciaran McIntyre’s bumbling Gene, a light-hearted antidote to the interaction between teacher and pupil, and a crucial foil for their tangible friction.
Meanwhile the role of Micah himself is played to perfection by the striking, intense Perry Millward, whose flourishing career as a character actor looks bright. Anna Francolini and McIntyre are to be commended too not only for engaging performances but for flawlessly maintaining different American accents throughout.
The debate forms the spine of the production but leaves room for flexible manoeuvre into the exploration of personal relationships, the meaning of education and “problems beyond these four walls”. All big topics, but all served well by an outstanding, tightly-directed cast and a bold writer who eloquently ponders that most age-old of assertions: “Heavenly Father’s a tricky little bastard isn’t he…”
How the World Began, Arcola Theatre, Hackney; until December 10. See Arcola Theatre for more.