Review of Electric Rosary at Royal Exchange, Manchester.
St Grace’s Convent, the setting for Tim Foley’s new play Electric Rosary, has seen better days. The pleasing symmetry of the chapel’s parquet flooring is now cluttered with cardboard storage boxes, and a bucket sits ready to catch rain drops from the leaking roof.
Disrepair isn’t the only problem, desperately needed new recruits to the order are in short supply. Could the answer to the nuns’ prayers be a robot, and the council grant that comes with it?
While the extra money is welcomed, responses to the new addition to the household are decidedly mixed. Long term resident Sister Constance sees mobile phones as “technological oppression”, so it’s no surprise she is vehemently opposed to the robot helper. By contrast, young novice Theresa views their recent arrival with gleeful fascination.
As Mary (which it transpires is the machine’s assigned name), Breffni Holahan deploys concise sweeping or jerky gestures, and a detached slightly off-kilter voice, to effectively embody a sense of alternative realness – an assembled set of components in recognisably human form.
The new android is however not the only thing on the sisters’ minds – they need to come up with a plan to fund a long-anticipated pilgrimage to their order’s spiritual home in Ecuador, as well as electing a successor to their recently-deceased Mother Superior. Emotions are running high.
Into this mix comes Mary, an innocent in the purest sense, offering logical opinions unvarnished by guile or tact. By contrast, the holy sisters are imperfect products of humanity – attached to hopes and dreams, prone to petty squabbles, and capable of deceit.
The evolving dynamic between the nuns and their robot, and Mary’s impact on the sisters’ lives, is used to thought-provoking effect – allowing Foley to explore knotty questions of faith, technology, and what it is to be human.
Ironically, rather than Mary being a menace to the sisters, it’s her you fear for, as their doubts, desires and fears seem to infiltrate and corrupt her circuit board. As tensions increase within the convent, roles blur, and it’s not always clear who is controlling who. Tasked at one point with interviewing the nuns, Mary assumes the role of their confessor.
A rich seam of humour runs through Electric Rosary, a glorious (and at times giddy) mix of the sweet and sour – from good-natured silliness to wickedly funny bile. Some of that is generated by Mary’s behaviour, and the nuns’ reactions – but there’s also a wonderfully evoked sense of a small tight-knit group, with all their foibles and frustrations.
One of the production’s main strengths is the assured and cohesive performances, buoyed up by some razor-sharp comic timing. The novelty of Holahan’s interpretation may catch the eye (deservedly so) but as the four nuns, Suzette Llewellyn, Olwen May, Jo Mousley, and Saroja-Lily Ratnavel create not just a collection of credible individuals, but a group bound together, for better or worse, in their shared purpose.
As if echoing the frugality of the sisters’ lifestyle, there’s an inventive restraint to the production’s design – with an overhead projector and a garden blower becoming tools in service to the miraculous. Memorably, chains of coloured panels create dappled reflections upon the stage, as if the light from stained glass windows is warming the chapel floor. Bursts of singing result in further moments of beauty – occasional reminders of the higher purpose that sits behind the everyday drudgery of the nuns’ work.
Sci-fi fan Foley has set his play in a near future where Mary is just the latest manifestation of a trend towards increased use of robot labour. The Reapers, an earlier form of technology, already tend to the convent’s farmlands.
“I felt the wet earth shift beneath me” proclaims Sister Constance on returning from a trip to the nearby village – and there’s a creeping sense of unease, that something is not quite right in the world outside. It’s more than unsettled weather. There’s increasing social unrest as machines displace workers, leaving people facing an uncertain future.
When those frustrations erupt in the production’s second half, director Jaz Woodcock-Stewart uses the theatre structure, and the Great Hall it sits within, to good effect. Lights flicker outside; angry voices rise, fall, and rise again, reverberating around us – as if we, the audience, are besieged within those convent walls too.
Some may find the play’s gradual evolution into something darker and more ambiguous slightly frustrating. After a near immaculately conceived first half I felt Foley had earned the right to push ambitiously at the boundaries of his creation. Electric Rosary imaginatively and entertainingly engages with questions around faith, humanity, and artificial intelligence – should it really be a revelation that it resists neat conclusions?
Performance seen on 27 April 2022.
Images by Helen Murray.