Workman delivers in tragedy turned rock opera

The God that Comes

Co-created by Hawksley Workman and Christian Barry

Directed by Christian Barry 

Belfry Theatre Spark Festival,

March 17-22

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Five years ago, disgruntled by changes under the Harper government (“It wasn’t the Canada I’d grown up in anymore”) playwright Christian Barry chanced on a copy of The Bacchae by Euripides. He contacted Juno-winning rock musician Hawksley Workman, whom he had seen perform in Montreal, and said: “I think I’ve got something we could work on.” The God that Comes was about to be born.

In 2012, this rock-opera—then “in-progress”—was performed at the Metro Theatre. It was back in town for a short run as part of the Belfry’s Spark Festival, an annual program featuring new Canadian theatre from other regions of the country. (Barry is co-artistic director of 2b Theatre in Halifax.)

In Euripides’ 2400 year-old Greek tragedy, a repressive king seeks to quell the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine, sexual liberation and—not to put too fine a point on it—theatre. The king fears Dionysus because the god is reputed to be able to subvert the oppressive restraints of the powerful. Disguised in women’s attire, the king makes his way to the top of a mountain where a Bacchanalia is in progress. When the women worshippers discover the king spying on them, they tear him limb-from-limb. The king’s own mother, under a spell of ritual madness, hallucinates that he is a lion and rips his head off. (Note: most of this was explained to the audience by a wine-sipping Workman in a prologue before the show at the Belfry got underway.)

And then the music began. With the ritualistic beat of drums, Workman’s signature instrument, the singer chanted “He knows what it takes to make us. He knows what it takes to break us.”

Mannequins at the rear of the stage depicted the main characters: the king sported a military hat; the god, a red feather boa; and the queen mother, a blonde wig; three characters but only one performer. Sometimes Workman donned the identifying article of a character when assuming that role; sometimes a spotlight simply illuminated that mannequin as he sang.

Moving easily from one instrument to another (Workman played several, including electric and acoustic guitars, recorder, ukulele, harmonica and keyboard) and adjusting his amazing voice (a growl through a megaphone for the king; tenor for the god; falsetto soprano for the mother), Workman sang all three of the characters, successfully making each one—even, in the end, the doomed king—sympathetic. Strobe lights, and digital delay loops playing back his just-recorded voice and music in rippling echoes, created a hypnotic effect. As the tension mounted to the moment of the king’s murder, the strobe lights became so intense I worried they might trigger an epileptic seizure in someone.

After all the atavistic violence, a quiet denouement ensued, but an electric sign in red letters proclaiming “Don’t stop love” seemed incongruous. For me, this phrase recalled the same-sex marriage struggle in the United States. In a telephone interview, Barry admitted the resonance, but deemed it coincidental: “When I saw [a sign like this] in New York, it opened my heart, and I knew I wanted that in the show.”

While a tour de force of musicianship, it’s difficult to say whether the show opened hearts or minds, either to love or to an awareness of political repression. Barry wants the show to be something that people listen to “with their muscles first and with their minds second.”

Considering the continual patter of sexual innuendo (“…and the god …came!”) and overt sexual gestures (including simulated cunnilingus with the female mannequin), it was easy to guess which muscle the men in the audience were likely listening with and hard to know whether their listening ever transitioned to their minds. It wasn’t the sex per se that was objectionable, but the attitude toward it: Hair celebrated cunnilingus back in the 1960s, but Hair was joyous; in this solo cabaret based on a Greek tragedy, the sexual references just seemed smutty.

When this run closes, it will mark the 116th performance of the show, and there is no end in sight. The two co-creators will be off to Hong Kong to spread their dual message of repression and liberation to other parts of the world. The long development period now behind them, Barry insisted the show is nevertheless a little different with each performance because Workman intuitively responds to the energy of each audience, and he concluded, like a fond papa: “I’m proud of it every night.”

Although The God that Comes concluded on March 21, The Spark Festival continues through March 22.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.