DAMIEN: The Leper Priest of Molokai

Across two evenings I get to see two massively impressive pieces of theatre. Sondheim’s Assassins blew me away but no doubt blew a huge hole in Chichester Festival Theatre’s annual budget, lavish staging and tech and a huge cast.  At Lantern Theatre there is little doubt that budgets will be comparatively tight, that’s not to say that Damien is impoverished in any sense, there’s an excellent set, sound and lighting, but with tighter finance this is the evidence that great theatre is not dependent on cash, far from it. Aldyth Morris’s play about the calling of Damien de Vauster is a triumph of intense storytelling, a narrative played in part in reverse but filled with detail, with passion and with sadness.

Father Damien, The Leper Priest of Molokai was an extraordinary force for good. In clerical terms he was unconventional, fiery and driven and at the same time gentle and kind. His fight for the wellbeing of the lepers in the colony he is charged with serving is impassioned, he is angry at the cavalier nature of the health board and in constant conflict with the Catholic Church who, whilst loving his selflessness, worry about his approach.

Given all this, the recorded truths about this man, the role is surely a more than demanding one. In comes Daniel Finlay, an actor who has allowed this character to invade his soul and possess his being for the quick fire and text dense 75 minutes of this remarkable one-acter. Finlay is mesmerically powerful, his shifts from the young and driven priest to the dying hero are utterly convincing and his dying moment, seen very early on in the play, will bring tears to anyone who has ever been present at the dying moment of a human being. I had to reach for a handkerchief.

If all this seems darker than dark, there are also moments of joy and of humour, the priest reading to the children is delightful.

Father Damien made so many selfless choices in his life, caring for the sick and suffering with little thought for his own health and he finally contracts the terrible leprosy. The parallels to the frightening HIV/AIDS  pandemic are all too apparent and he has since been regarded as the patron saint of those living with HIV/AIDS.

Janette Eddisford’s direction and design is precise and paced, moments of intense anger are balanced with silences and gentle reflection. The staging is excellent, each item of set and furniture and every prop is there because it needs to be there.

In conclusion, this is the pure essence of great theatre, great direction and sublime acting and the proof that small theatre can hold its own against lavish and expensive productions.

Andrew Kay

10 June

Lantern Theatre

Rating: ★★★★★

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