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Arts Festival Review: The Holy Sinner

The Holy Sinner

Reviewed by Lyndon Hood

The Holy Sinner
10 - 13 March
St James
2 hours 30 minutes


The Holy Sinner is spectacular. It is theatre produced on a scale at or beyond that usually associated with opera or musicals. Inside Out's Marie Adams and Mike Mizrahi have spent the last decade making large-scale public and corporate performance and the show is full of that spirit. Full-stage video projection, pyrotechnics, 3D sound, light shows, grand movements of people through space (the large ensemble cast is kept very busy) and huge, mobile pieces of set all contibute to produce images on a truly epic scale.

Some of these images help move on the action - as in a beautifully realised, if hollywood-style, medieval war scene. Others amplify the emotional situation, as in the movement sequence where the newborn twins weave around and cling to each other as they will through life. But many seem to do little except take up more time.

The biggest problem with The Holy Sinner was that everything took too long.

Whether due to the sheer logistics of shifting and re-costuming actors, or over-indulgence, or simply to cueing problems, it seemed as if each grand new visual idea outstayed its welcome. These might have been dramatic in themselves set up in a warehouse or outdoors with all the technical bones showing - here, behind the poscenium arch of the Opera House, we saw it, took it in, and then started waiting for the action to resume.

Even the most appropriate and imaginative stage images - such as a physically spinning room at the highest moment of emotional turmoil - went on too long.

The actual plot could be summarised in a few paragraphs - and the first half was what might normally be considered the prologue (the opening sequences were in fact the most boring, which left the production with a lot of sympathy to rebuild). Even if we add in all the different pieces of spectacle, not a lot happened.

In this context, it becomes difficult to enjoy the production as a whole, to connect up the characters and the emotions, or even get a clear sense of what the point of the whole thing is. Any gains made, as from a particularly stong image or the engagingly earthy appearances of Madeleine Sami as a maid/narrator, are quickly lost.

Another issue is to do with repitition. Sometimes images are reincorporated in a way that works - the powerful abstraction of the weight of sin as a huge physical ball and chain bearing down on the two incestuous sinners is powerful the first time and is invoked again when the situation recurs. On the other hand, the sequences depicting the sinning in question are almost identical, down to the music, the special effects and if not the characters then the actors. Having seen it once, we do not get much more out of seeing it again.

The soundtrack - tending to intense, driving electronic compositions - reflected these problems in that it was ulitmately based in repetition. A few more actual tunes may have done a lot for the whole production.

The Holy Sinner is based on Thomas Mann's novel, which retells a 12th-century story of sin and redemption. Mann's book is regarded as having layers reflecting on things such as modern Europe - this production seems most interested in the tale. Using the old epic as a frame for spectacle after spectacle, it shows a few signs of an exuberant approach to storytelling where one will happily throw anything into the mix, however incongruous, if it enhances the story or the audience's enjoyment. It would be in that context that, if we felt the final spectacle to be lacking (it wasn't), the desicion to "bring on the marching girls" - literally - might have made sense.

But because the dramatic and structural sides of the show do not seem to have come together - the production might have benefitted from a opening run in the provinces that NZ isn't really set up to provide - the whole thing was visually impressive without really being entertaining.

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NZ Arts Festival: The Holy Sinner
Scoop Audio Interview: The Holy Sinner co-director Mike Mizrahi
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 06

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