Written, directed and produced by Melbourne-based playwright Jodi Gallagher, Prophet is an ambitious and powerful 90-minute theatrical exploration of the psychological and socio-political origins, earth-shaking power and tragic human consequences of ideology.
The play is performed by six actors in promenade-style – the seating bank packed up, and the black box Theatre Works space converted into a post-apocalyptic cinematic set (design by Sam Diamond), strewn with wooden crates and framed by larger set pieces of stage risers at various levels, connected with scaffolding.
The audience is encouraged to wander around the space, to position ourselves wherever we want and to observe the performers as closely as we desire. This can be a gamble, and for linear storytelling, difficult to pull off. But the plethora of points on which to perch encourage it, and people do move around to gain a better view of an unfolding scene, or to situate themselves closer to the action.
The actors frequently directly address members of audience, never gazing so long as to make any individual feel uncomfortable, but certainly helping to smash any imagined fourth wall.
The story emerges in pieces, through scenes between characters and individual monologues. We hear from one character about the rising waters, of cows turning up in trees. From another, we hear about a war that has been going on for too long.
We meet two men: one, a writer with a wife at home, with whom he was trying for a baby. The other stands on a street corner, reeling off what may be prophecy, may be politics, and may be something murkier, but which is starting to gain an audience.
Prophet is told like a modern gospel or spiritual text through stories, reflections and scenes, some obtuse, some metaphorical and others direct and visceral. It is ambitious in structure, staging and production, and a singularly profound experience.
The sound design by J David Franzke is magnificent. The overall effect is one of stepping into a subterranean retro-futuristic end-of-days: Bladerunner meets Apocalypse Now. Reverberant drops echoing, as if far underground in a network of tunnels and pipes, and deep droning electronic wails provide an ominous background for a multifaceted soundscape that supports the staging and scene shifts.
Powerful blue and amber cross lighting (by Bronwyn Pringle) through the smoke-filled haze brings a shifting dystopian structure to the large open space. Being allowed to move around as different actors become spot-lit and different spaces activated offers the audience the sense of being in charge of our own cinematography.
The actors’ costumes – beige- and earth-toned camouflage and rough-spun materials – strengthen the overall sense of a world on the brink, with war and poverty the only things remaining. The one exception is the figure of the politician, performed with Thatcher-esque ruthlessness by Helen Hopkins, dressed in a stylish blue suit. The contrast reinforces the separation of those in power from those without, and a reminder that in conflict, war and revolution it is always the poorest that suffer.
Prophet is dark, disturbing and cinematic, with talented performances and each element of the incredible design combining to unsettle and provoke. As the climate crisis rages, as our politicians stumble, as capitalism craters our lives, it’s a reminder of the power of words, and the attraction of ideology when all else is lost.
In Prophet, however, there is no salvation. Therein lies the true darkness.
Theatre Works, Melbourne
Written, directed and produced by Jodi Gallagher
Co-Producer: Carolyn Bock
Set and Costume Design: Sam Diamond
Composition and Sound Design: J. David Franzke
Lighting Design: Bronwyn Pringle
Videographer: Max Hopkins
Stage Manager, Lighting and Sound Operator: Caitlin Duff
Rigging: Claire Springett
Co-Stage Manager (Rehearsals, Bump In and Build): Lee Mccleneghan
Production Interns: Atulya Pulikkottil (Set Design), Kinke Penninga (Lighting Operator)
Cast: Carolyn Bock, Dennis Coard, Helen Hopkins, Mia Landgren, Scott Middleton, Gabriel Partington, Carole Patullo
Prophet will be performed until 2 September 2023.