The Temptation Of St Anthony

'The Temptation of St. Anthony'

Music and Lyrics: Bernice Johnson Reagon; Producer: Robert Wilson

September 2003 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Robert Wilson’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony” opened the new season at London’s Sadler’s Wells. It marks a fresh departure for the theatre and its new Chief Executive Jean-Luc Choplin. Firstly, it is musical theatre rather than dance and secondly, in a new role, Sadler’s is one of the producers.

However, the premiere of the work gained uniformly poor reviews and tepid applause from the first night audience. You can read the comments of the UK newspaper critics here.

Thea Nerissa Barnes believes that much of the criticism is misplaced and here mounts a passionate defence of Wilson’s new work.

All right guys -- back off! Sure the similarity to “The Lion King” is there but it is minimal at best. Take it from someone who knows. And, if from now on anyone who uses puppets onstage or does a processional down the aisle is compared with Disney’s “Lion King,” what are we asking of people?   What are we asking of art?

I’m bored with those of you who can’t allow artists to be inspired by ideas that belong to all of us; to shape in their own way those inspirations that roll up on the shores of life. “Lion King” does not own the use of puppets!!! In fact, the idea for puppetry finds its inspirations – and it’s plural, boys and girls – in the Orient and Africa; puppetry of a sort has been used for centuries. I have seen the use of puppets lately in theatre presentations, in particular Shockheaded Peter. Maybe you didn’t see this? I don’t understand your dismissal of “Temptation” on these grounds.

Perhaps the music, a use of African American and Africanist practices in music and movement,   got confused. Maybe it was the deliberate use of young and mature voices to blend into an ensemble voice that was more textual than just simply soprano, altos, and baritones. Maybe it was the bodily narrative, full bodied and slim, young and old and slightly infirm but not deterred. Sure I did not understand the significance of the blue cardboard palm tree that flew out never to be seen again, and the gear flying in to take the rather weak prop for the pile of gold. I found this bit of stagecraft wanting.

I also found the changing of the lights busy and did more to illustrate the choices of the lighting designer making. The busy lights distracted from those points when the lights truly worked to emphasise some of the spatial arrangements and duets. I also found that at points the band was too loud and drowned out some of the solo voices. Who ever was mixing sound needs to rethink the acoustics of Sadler’s Wells. It is this that I believe may need to be looked at – not the ability of Sadler’s to host musical theatre.

Beyond this I was moved by the voices and rocked in my seat to sounds of the ensemble singing “Hypocrite” (even with the fingers, boys and girls, because maybe if you knew the church women I knew, you would have nothing to say except giggle from remembrances) and “It’s Gon’ Rain” and was touched when the oldest gentleman sang “I knew the Carpenter’s Son.” Excuse me but in some art practices a church service is a piece of theatre. Church is where sacred merges with secular and produce an event that has lots of resonance of its own -- a kind of theatre of life. Maybe the sensibilities were unfamiliar to you.

And another thing: we can sit through endless reams of classical music that quote each other and sound similar, an adagio is an adagio by any other name and they all use the same notes, even jazz.   But, you mean to tell me that every piece of gospel has to be different somehow, new and not connected? Hymns are hymns and the genre of gospel has its own canon. If a song meets the requisite characteristics, why is it wrong? Gospel like any other form uses its foundation to create new renditions and there is supposed to be a thread. So where is the fault in Reagon’s choices, excuse me? Or were you expecting some new innovative entity? Seems like something else is at work in your critics than meets the eye!

I gasped as Anthony was tempted sexually and tested by the possibility of rapturous love by three voluptuous women or one young man in the song “God is Love.” I did have to think, where is Wilson going with this. Still the whole thing with all its flaws made me contemplate. Sure the message of St Anthony is a naïve one in view of 9/11, the Boston Arch Diocese paying victims of abuse by members of its priesthood, Liberia paying relatives of victims, Blair and the dodgy dossier and the tribulations that seem to be endless for the people of Iraq, Liberia, and Belfast.

But “Temptation” at the least made me want to hope. Hope that you guys will one day see the variety in trees we got in the various forests instead of making out that there is only one tree and one forest.   Secondly,   “Temptation” made me look again at the world from my small outpost and think we all got to find an ark cause it’s raining. You can make of that what you will …


Edited by Jeff.

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