Shalom Life | December 24, 2015

Shaw Festival Review- The Divine: A Play for Sarah Berhnardt

This powerful play based on a true story is an absolute must-see this summer.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: August 23rd, 2015 in Culture » Stage » Reviews

Shaw Festival Review- The Divine: A Play for Sarah Berhnardt

The Divine: A Play for Sarah Berhnardt was created for The Shaw Festival by Quebecois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard and translated into English by Linda Gaboriau. In some ways it is uniquely Canadian. But the power and passion that is brought to stage by the combined talents of the writer, director, and ensemble of actors will resonate with audiences around the world because it speaks so directly to the most fundamental issue of our time – the corruption of and exploitation by the institutions we believed were created to protect and serve us. In this case, we are looking at the Roman Catholic Church at the turn of the century in Quebec, but the sense of loss and betrayal, the desperation, and the vulnerability felt at the hands of powerful institutions that control our lives is profound and timely.

The play is based on a real event that took place between the Church and Sarah Bernhardt, the international celebrity who challenged traditions and orthodoxy wherever she went. The event, however, is almost a backdrop to the story of two young seminarians preparing to become priests. And although there are some comical moments provided largely by Fiona Reid as the outrageous Sarah, this is an intense and provocative theater experience. But it is not so provocative because of the abuses of the Church and the acute impact it had on its victims. It is because despite the historical context (which much space is given in the program to explain), it clearly depicts the systemic abuse of power that is so insidious in society today, whereby both the victims and perpetrators normalize and justify it as a reasonable sacrifice to make for the ‘greater good’, ultimately institutionalizing the very injustices it is meant to abolish.

It is no secret that the Catholic Church has been involved in a long list of wrongdoings throughout history. And it’s not just their critics that have chronicled the abuse. Pope John Paul II officially apologized to the Jews for the Church’s role in the Holocaust and in the African slave trade, the religious wars, for the treatment of Galileo, the people convicted by the Inquisition, the Muslims killed during the Crusades, the denigration of women, and a long list of other abuses which totalled one hundred. And in 2001, he further apologised for the sex abuse, mistreatment of Aboriginals, and the behaviour of Catholic missionaries during colonisation of most of the world. But as he also admitted, “an excuse is worse and more terrible than a lie, for an excuse is a lie guarded.” Confession yes, much easier than trying to defend acts that are now considered indefensible, but did this lead to a more open, transparent, or democratic institution? Absolutely not! And although in many western countries, the influence of the church on their personal morality may be waning, it is stronger than ever in countries where poverty and undemocratic governments are thriving. And even less transparent is the actual political, social, and economic influence it holds as one of the wealthiest institutions on the planet. It has holdings in such industries as banking, insurance, media, chemicals, steel, construction and real estate. And, of course, the priceless art, gold bullion, and historic buildings it owns combine to amount to assets larger than most corporations, and more than many nations. They have the power and resources to create meaningful changes in the areas of poverty, health, conflict, and the environment. All areas they publically urge and pray for change. But do they invest in meaningful change? No, and their money is not only invested in companies that support or reinforce Catholic dogma but are responsible for many of the ills the Catholic Church claims it denounces. This organization is a tightly controlled hierarchal institution, an undemocratic government that is characterized by the silencing of issues and lack of debate. It is a fortress where the ‘king’ claims he is concerned about the poor, the abused, the abandoned, and the forgotten. And then rigidly supports a system that demonizes progress and positive health choices that would liberate millions from the cycle of poverty and abuse. But the Catholic Church is not alone in this corrupt behaviour. Large international corporations, governments, and terrorist groups have all taken pages out of this playbook.

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