André Alexis’ The Decalogue
17 January 2012 No Comments
By Anya Wassenberg
The Decalogue is a long-term project – to say the least. Its genesis as an idea came about some three or four years ago, according to writer André Alexis, during a period when he was doing a show on CBC Radio called Tapestry. Tapestry features philosophical and spiritual themes of various kinds, and André was asked to write a show based on the 10 Commandments of the Old Testament.
The show ended up written as a series of segments that examined each of the Commandments in turn. When it aired, it caught the attention of Richard Rose, Artistic Director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, who suggested that André adapt the piece for the stage. The idea intrigued him but posed a number of issues.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do what I had (already) done, which is to look at the 10 Commandments playfully.” What emerged was a desire to do two things at once. “Through the lens of morality, to explore theatre as ritual,” he explains. It serves a twin purpose: a meditation on morality and the classic themes of ethics, and a chance to write for and in various theatrical forms and conventions.
The subject matter held its own appeal. “I’m kind of obsessive when it comes to the visualization of the godly,” he admits. He describes himself as agnostic. “We only have our perspective as humans,” he explains. “We don’t have the tools. But – the imagination of God is fascinating. I’m happy to play with ideas of God.” He holds up the Bible as a marvel of English literature, replete with the fundamental themes of human existence and written as poetry. “You can’t really be a writer of English and not be fascinated by the King James.”
Each of the ten pieces will take a different form. The first, Name in Vain (Decalogue Two), took the stage this past October. Set in a monastery, the play features only two spoken words – the Lord’s name taken in vain when one of the monks breaks his vow of silence.
“It’s a take that’s centred on creating tension and forward movement with the body,” he says. “It’s a meditation on our relationship to the land.” The play’s choreography involves gardening movements, for example, and he talks about Trinidadian vs Canadian views of the earth and land.
The second, Leporello in Gehenna (Decalogue Six), was presented in Tarragon’s Workspace in December, examining the sixth commandment: thou shalt not commit adultery. It’s a musical production along the lines of the Three Penny Opera with both spoken and musical segments.
“It was set in hell,” he explains. “The songs were painful reminders of earth.” It’s an approach that looks at melody and rhythm as central factors to the overall effect of the performance. “It’s thinking rhythmically.”
It’s clear he has a multi-year project in mind. “I’d like to get all ten done,” he says, “to allow myself a prolonged thought, all the way to the end.”
Future pieces include a Shakespearian take on ‘honour thy father and thy mother’ in a reworking of King Lear, and he’ll use puppetry to talk about false idols. He’s stretching his creative muscles with each new Decalogue, starting from scratch over and over. “I invite criticism of both the work and the attitude,” he says. “It’s theatre as meditation.”