It is doubtful that the words “thank the Lord for COVID” have been uttered many times across the last year, but without the pandemic it is unlikely that UK audiences would have been lucky enough to witness this current New York production of British Writer Tristen Bernays’ breathtaking play, TESTAMENT. The piece was originally written in 2017, but has been adapted for film by Lucy Jane Atkinson, and is presented online by US theatre company Via Brooklyn.
TESTAMENT is a powerhouse production of biblical proportions and truly testament to how the world may have adapted to life living in a lockdown, but how humanity has remained unchanged for thousands of years. It shows us just 4 individuals and a therapist on a stage. Simple enough as a concept, but it examines deeply the basic human need for connection in a year where community has felt more important than ever before. It is a contemporary retelling of well-known, but often overlooked, bible character’s stories: Isaac Son of Abraham, Lot’s Daughters and Impenitent Thief on the Cross.
The traditional stories are told here as monologues/duologues that overwhelmingly combine and collide with the power of 21st century politics, community, trauma, child abuse, religion, mental health issues, therapy, theatre, and music. It has an overwhelmingly modern human touch but is deeply rooted in the ancient traditions of storytelling. It is a rich piece of theatre that offers insights into the human condition and gives these unknown voices a chance to finally tell their side of the story.
Atkinson has set this piece simply in a US church with five chairs and a giant cross in the background that maintains a constant presence throughout. It could be argued that this is a metaphor for the presence of ‘the establishment’ as we hear this modern darker telling of well-known bible stories.
The stories are interspersed by rousing, original gospel and blues music that has been influenced heavily by psalms and hymns. The song is led by Desireé Rodriguez (Rosetta) in her role as facilitator/therapist. From its beginnings, Gospel music has challenged the church. Its purpose to uplift and encourage believers and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ through music with the hope of bringing salvation to non-believers. It is meaningful therefore that Bernays uses the songs to represent ‘therapy’ in this piece. It is impossible not to feel some comfort from the lyrics sung so expertly by Rodriguez.
TESTAMENT has a strong cast or performers, Doron JéPaul Mitchell (Isaac Son of Abraham), Jessica Giannone (Lot’s Daughter, Mary), Cori Hundt (Lot’s Daughter, Jane) and Biko Eisen-Martin (Impenitent Thief on the Cross/Anthony), but Mitchell’s performance as Isaac was stand-out, beautifully telling Isaac’s story in a way that is sure to resonate with many people across the world.
It is simply impossible not to feel moved by this piece as it is juxtaposes the traditional and the modern so seamlessly and shines a bright light on stories that are so relevant for many in 2021. Completely gripping from start to finish and a must-see production.
You can watch TESTAMENT via online streaming until 24th April at: https://www.viabrooklyn.org/
Reviewer: Alan Stuart Malin
Reviewed: 26th March 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★