Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam

Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, adapted by Steve Rodgers from the novella by Peter Goldsworthy.  A Riverside National Theatre of Parramatta production presented by Belvoir, at Belvoir Street Upstairs, February 6 – March 8, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 16

Director – Darren Yap; Set and Costume Designer – Emma Vine; Lighting and AV Designer – Verity Hampson; Composer and Sound Designer – Max Lambert and Sean Peter.

Cast (alphabetical)
Valerie Bader (Grandma / Dr Eve), Emma Jackson (Linda), Mark Lee (Grandpa / Priest), Liam Nunan (Ben), Grace Truman (Wol), Matthew Whittet (Rick)


Though I am used to being emotionally stirred by theatre, this presentation of a controversial story as a live performance disturbs me. 

When reading a fiction, I can set myself at arm’s length, pause to consider the author’s intention, and decide whether or not to read any further.  In the theatre, as the father’s intention to kill himself and his 12-year-old daughter at some point of his choosing when it seemed that her leukaemia could not be stopped from killing her, I could not stop being taken beyond an unacceptable conclusion.

Though some people may simply consider this to be a ‘sad’ story of a father willing to sacrifice himself in the name of ‘love’ for his daughter – by keeping her company right through until the end – this motivation (in a fictional character, remember) is warped in the extreme.  This father justifies committing suicide, and murder.

Perhaps Peter Goldsworthy’s intention was to open up the reader’s thinking about this family’s twisted faith, apparently acceptable to the fictional priest.  Perhaps it was meant to be enlightening about the nature of a God who can kill a child.  Perhaps voluntary euthanasia was the issue in Goldsworthy’s mind – except that Wol (fictional again, don’t forget) was too young to be legally responsible, and Rick was certainly not terminally ill – nor of sound mind.

Perhaps, as I thought the title of the work meant, the novella and the play would be taking a severely critical view of religious belief which, for example, can lead Catholic priests to refuse to report confessions of child abuse, and protect their confreres from criminal charges.  That God is certainly not Love – and Rick’s ‘love’ makes him think that he is God.

The adaptation for the stage, unfortunately, is not clear in its intention.  The style is essentially naturalistic, except for an occasional speech from the father which seems to be aimed directly at the audience.  If the whole play had been presented in this out-to-us form then perhaps I could have stood mentally back enough to see the story as simply being about issues.  But the apparent realism of the interactions between characters, particularly between Linda and her mother and the treating doctor, and the understandable sullenness in Ben’s responses, made the play awful to watch.  So then the ending, when his mother reminds Ben, now four years older, of how his father carried out injecting his daughter and himself, as if this was a normal – in fact loving – thing to do, was just sickening.

I didn’t feel sad.  If anything, it made me feel angry that Rick had left his wife and son with no support after the unavoidable death of her young daughter and his younger sister. 

So, on reflection, I think if Goldsworthy intended to make Rick a heroic loving father, then that was a serious error of judgement on Goldsworthy’s part.  Reviews (at, for example,  https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/615999.Jesus_Wants_Me_For_a_Sunbeam )
range from “This may be the worst book I have had the misfortune to encounter. One of the most utterly hideous, contrived and disingenuous novels I have ever read.” to “I nearly shed a tear at the end of this novella, not because I was sad that the father and daughter were dying, but that the father was spinning the biggest lie - that they would be together in death.” [because] “A rejection of God and Jesus would result in them not being together and his ultimate suicide was really for nothing.”

One said simply, “A very good read. I read it at one sitting.”

Be warned, then, that you will see a well-designed and very well performed show; but be prepared for what you might shed a tear for.

Set design by Emma Vine
Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeamby Peter Goldsworthy
Riverside National Theatre of Parramatta
presented at Belvoir 2020
Photo: M McKone