The inventive and playful Stan’s Cafe return to Greenbelt, with their new show The Cardinals; a ramshackle, whistlestop tour of the Bible with selected highlights. Three fully robed Cardinals act out the key events inside a puppet-sized theatre aided by a female Muslim stage manager. The audience’s viewpoint spans to the wings; where we see exactly how everything is being made.
Key scenes are continually undermined; while Adam and Eve eat the apple, thus altering the course of history forever, the bored-looking Cardinal, playing the arm of God, upstages them as he waits for his cue to banish them out of Eden. At the point of Jesus’ upmost despair in the garden of Gethsemane, the stage manager fiddles with a costume off stage; our eyes are drawn to the sequined fabric glittering under the lights and away from the suffering saviour.
The style is pedestrian; the Cardinals are getting through their chosen highlights, doing the best they can with drapes of fabric, props on sticks and a limited acting ability. This is a lesson that needs to be heard; constructed and abbreviated, performed through the Cardinals‘ own framed stage.
Set changes are frantic, the players bump into each other with a slap-stick comedy while searching frenetically for their props and changing costumes. Tensions abound with their jobs-worth stage manager who continually checks the script and her watch. While teching the music for a particular segment, one of her own drum n’ bass tracks kicks in, to the Cardinals’ horror. Traditional choral music quickly replaces it. The show goes on.
The Cardinals slots in well to a Christian arts festival; the majority of the audience laugh in recognition at the shoddily put-together scenes; Abraham and Isaac, the Flood, the Magi, Jesus walking on water, reminiscent of medieval mystery plays. In spite of these scruffy re-enactments, Stan’s Cafe are in complete control of this nuanced show which questions the nature of history, story and religion. It is deliberately distancing; the mechanics of theatre laid bare, simultaneously accentuating the way in which belief can be constructed. Familiar stories become historical set-pieces, devoid of catharsis.
In the second half there are fights over the St George’s Cross and the Crescent moon flag of Islam; the Cardinals religion progresses to the Crusades’ fight for the Holy Land. The battle is accentuated by the presence of an increasingly vacant stage manager wearing her hijab. Armageddon is beckoning as the show draws to a close; the performance becomes more chaotic – World War II, 9/11, echos of the biblical first half fuse together to a terrifying climax.
At over two hours The Cardinals is a long show for a festival; the rough-shod, fiddly scenes can be hard to watch in a style that is in danger of becoming repetitive. At times the material and characters are too detached; a greater sense of an over-arching narrative could be needed to not alienate the real audience altogether.
Yet it is an undeniably provoking show for our post-Christendom times; what does religion look like now? Do we really care or even still believe these famous biblical narratives? How do we continue to shape and construct our own mini and meta-stories? Stan’s Cafe have succeeded in imbuing the opening of Greenbelt with an unnerving ripple of dissent.