The Awakening, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre - Review

In today's world where atrocities are unfortunately a common feature on the news, one of the most prevalent questions raised is how should the guilty be dealt with for their crimes? Are punishment and justice always the same thing? The ancient Greeks wrestled with these questions, particularly the Ouroborous nature of cause and effect.

Directed by Madeleine Moore and written by Julian Garner, The Awakening at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre touches on these questions in a timeless, rural setting. Johannes (Alex Dowling) who has committed a 'an unspeakable crime' is allowed to work on a remote farm by 'Captain Agnes' (Grace Cookey-Gam) – a prison reformer and daughter of a lay preacher, who has fought tooth and nail for the rehabilitation of 'the worst of prisoners'. Unn (Joana Nastari) initially gives a chilly reception to Agnes and Johannes when they arrive on her farm, but over time her reservations about Johannes thaws and their mutual happiness becomes a thorny issue for some...

On the surface, The Awakening has superficial similarities with Peter Shaffer's Equus, with elements such as young man committing an unspeakable crime, a member of the prison services trying to help him and an appropriation of religion in lieu of human contact. However, at its core the play is more akin to the issues raised in Nicole Kassell's The Woodsman where a parolee isn't allowed to forget his past and despite finding the love of a good woman, events conspire to put him in temptation's path again.

Agnes is some ways a fictionalised version of the Victorian British prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, whose personal faith spurred her humanitarian services in and beyond penitentiaries. One of the accusations laid by Fry's detractors during her life was her 'social crusade' was at the expense of the well-being of her own family. Unn makes a similar claim as Agnes – her 'surrogate mother' – left her on the island years before so she could continue her work on the mainland. The tension in this female dynamic underpins the motives and choices made in the play.

As for Johannes, the childlike figure that stands between these two women, he is more akin to 'George' in Of Mice And Men – a passive, simple personality, but beneath the surface has the capacity for committing great harm.

Jarren Dalmeda who plays Iversen serves as a character who demands 'natural justice' – not a watered-down compromise based on the higher, civilised aspirations of society. His ideological clashes with Agnes bookends the play and serves as a reminder of the friction between closure for crime’s victims and ‘abstract’ justice.

Garner like many writers before him has used religion as a conventional shorthand for a counterintuitive thinking and a source of conflict from without and within. While its vernacular and symbolism provides a consistent framework for the play, I feel Garner's writing would have been more interesting if the same issues of justice, forgiveness and closure were addressed in a way that resonates with today's secular society – damned or saved by our own endeavours.

Regardless of this, the play is charged with tension and atmosphere, with Moore's direction and strong cast fleshing the play's inherent themes and subtext. Special mention should also be made of Nastari's role of Unn, whose character emerges as the most complex and intriguing of the play.

It is, however, in the character arc of Agnes that the play that comes full circle as her final response encapsulates society’s views on rehabilitation and whether the worst perpetrators have foresworn their right to the hope of human warmth and love.

© Michael Davis 2016

The Awakening runs at the Blockley Jack Studio Theatre until 24th September 2016.


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