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Review: Agnes of God by Desert Wine Productions

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A likeable enough religious mystery/thriller on a budget.

Agnes of God is a production whose script pulls out all the stops for shock – an amnesiac novice nun found with her baby strangled by its own umbilical cord and absentmindedly tossed into a wastepaper basket, a cagey Mother Superior who becomes increasingly suspicious as secrets from the convent keep slipping out, and an atheist psychiatrist tasked to get to the bottom of it all while grappling with her own dark past with Catholicism.

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Directed by Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam, simplicity is at the heart of Desert Wine’s production of the psychological thriller, relying on a practical set that serves mostly as backdrop, with the focus of the production trained on the cast executing the unique, police procedural-like script. Although bogged down by its heavy dialogue at times, there are moments which feel genuinely thrilling, from the unfathomable appearance of bloody stigmata to a possession-like hypnosis session, and the story is compelling enough to keep audiences wondering whodunnit till the mystery is revealed. A smart directorial move involves replacing Agnes with a body double during the hypnosis scene, allowing her to move to the ‘flashback’ segment of the stage where she can fully perform her hysteria, while the double writhes and struggles back in the ‘present day’ to present both past and present simultaneously without interrupting the flow of the script.

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Agnes of God is an ambitious production to feature such a young cast, and there are times it can be difficult to suspend our disbelief in seeing them as older women. Although director Sharmila has done well to cast the age-appropriate Lee Jie Ying as the young Agnes, and the production has been executed to the best of their abilities, one wishes that the entire performance could have been tighter. Of the three actresses, it is Tan Rui Shan (last seen in One Thousand Millennials Crying) as central character Dr Martha Livingstone who acts as the anchor keeping this entire production together as she delivers her monologues, giving insight and additional depth to the body of the plot. Confident and clear in her execution and bringing out her character’s no-nonsense attitude, there is a surprising maturity to her performance that makes her a narrator we can trust and emotionally invest in, and one hopes to see Rui Shan continue to shine in future productions.

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Agnes of God has done well to give outsiders a fleeting glimpse into the cloistered and fiercely private world of Catholicism, rife with secrets and silence that brings out the claustrophobia of organised religion. In the era of #MeToo and the indictment of Harvey Weinstein, Agnes of God rises to become more than its blood and horror initially suggests, becoming a narrative of shared fear and trauma experienced by women across society. From the difficulty of watching and hearing the abuse discussed onstage, one cannot help but think of how women have and continue to remain silenced and in suffering, whether forced or self-censored. This results in a deep melancholy and pain that courses throughout Agnes of God from all three of its characters, even as the case draws to an uneasy close. As Agnes and Miriam sing the final hymn of Ave Maria, one is left discomforted by unresolved issues that continue to haunt Dr Livingstone, and continues to ponder over the many traumas and psychological scars left from society, taking a lifetime or more to heal.

Photos from Desert Wine Productions

Performance attended 26/5/18 (Matinee)

Agnes of God played at the KC Arts Centre from 26th – 27th May.

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