Review: Negotiating with the Dead
A compelling exploration on the implications of a ‘holy’ cause
Tuesday night, in the dim light of Pembroke Cellars, Negotiating with the Dead unearthed an object akin to the Holy Grail and resurrected the victims of its divine status (just regular Tuesday activities). Negotiating with the Dead follows an archaeologist who has discovered The Templar’s Cross, an ancient Christian relic, and she has recurring metaphysical visions of a group of Crusaders who are battling for the Cross. The play oscillates between debating the ethics of a supposedly “holy” war and the modern glorification of blood-soaked religious relics for the sake of museum or personal profit. In a statement on Instagram, director Ella Wiegers expressed the concept for the production being almost apocalyptic, as “each character, particularly Florine, Isaiah, and Elijah, [go] through their own miniature apocalypses.” Thus, the play explores the shattering worlds of these characters, past and present.
Writer Amy Brian has produced an incredible script. Each line is purposeful and propelling and treats the subject matter with grace and empathy, never villainizing religion but exposing how Christianity has been convoluted for the sake of power. In Elijah’s (Isaac Allen) monologue to devout priest Isaiah (Dan Mills), he expresses his frustration with the concept of a religiously-mandated war, or a “divine battle,” that is robbing innocent people of their lives. By contemplating religiosity and its place in conflict, Elijah’s character exposed the core queries of the show: can a war ever be holy? Brian’s writing does not treat this subject lightly or passively; rather, Elijah’s frustration is delivered with delicate words and compassion. Elijah expresses wanting to teach his son to sing, a tender experience that the quest for a divine object deprives him of. Allen’s performance of Elijah, too, brings Brian’s words to life, filling the audience with sympathy for the knight as he laments his having to defend a religion for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of women and children. Brian’s monologues are where the play shined.
Brian’s script provided a solid, compelling foundation for the play, but at times, the production seemed to fall short of the brilliance of the script. Since the play fiddles with conceptions of time, one timeline being modern and the other being medieval, I was often unsure who on stage could “see” each other (since the crusaders exist in a metaphysical space as a manifestation of Florine’s anxieties over profiting off the Templar Cross), and which layered interactions were more imperative to pay attention to for the plot.
Unfortunately, because of this disconnect, Florine’s (Amelia Mitchell) eventual resistance of the consumption and greed surrounding religious cultural objects had little theatrical payoff, especially since it follows Isaiah’s climactic rebellion against Lord Behemond (Joe Orell). Florine’s mental health, job, and family struggles are briefly described and only somewhat embellished. She’s an archaeologist who has been searching for this cross her entire life, and her discovery of it collapses her worldview. Unfortunately, her storyline took a backseat to the Crusaders, which is a shame as she seemed to be quite an interesting character, and her ability to convene with the dead is an interesting concept. As such, I lost quite a bit of Florine’s story and motivations, making her character succumb to the powerful performance by the Crusaders.
In this confusion, though, the Crusaders were able to shine and exhibit the cruelty of a war that claimed to have a holy cause. The men become victims of the holy cross, with Lord Behemond’s meeting his end due to his greed for the relic and its supposedly holy attributes and dragging his knights down with him. The scenes with all three knights and the priest stood out in this production; their drunken banter and then serious contemplation on justifying widespread violence rooted in religion were gripping. From the first moment that two sword-brandishing Crusaders burst onto the stage with Florine, alarming her and the audience, the knights keep the audience’s rapt attention
Negotiating with the Dead explores the normalization of religious corruption and its implications years later, imploring the audience to do their own “negotiating with the dead” as they tackle the normalization of religiously motivated atrocities. While I felt disconnected from the production at times, the overall messaging and script made the play a thought-provoking, entertaining piece.
Overall, Negotiating the Dead had moments of profundity, but it left me wanting more as I became invested in The Templar’s Cross and its fate. Perhaps with a bit of directorial fine-tuning, the brilliance of the script and story would emerge. With such a timely concept, Negotiating the Dead is a thoughtful exploration into the deadly implications of a “holy” war and relic, but more than that, it offers an acute look into the apocalyptic effect of losing faith, in a religion or an institution.
Negotiating with the Dead is showing at the Pembroke New Cellars from the 21st-25th November. Buy tickets here.
Feature image credits: Natina Rose