revew: Tim Foley – Electric Rosary
by Tim Foley/
dir Jaz Woodcock-Stewart/
design Charlotte Espiner/
composition & sound Anna Clock/
Royal Exchange Theatre/
23 Apr – 14 May 2022//
Once a year, my primary school would take a flotilla of coaches to Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic church. The year 6 children would perform for us the story of St Bernadette of Lourdes, who, while collecting firewood at the age of fourteen, began seeing visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto. The apparition commanded her to dig at her feet, and when Bernadette did, a freshwater spring began to flow from the grotto. The grotto at Lourdes became a site of pilgrimage, and the waters from the spring had healing properties: curing the sick, restoring people’s ability to walk. How I understood the world as a child was informed by these Catholic miracle plays, and by the casual theatre of Catholic mass, every Sunday.
Electric Rosary is one of these miracle plays. In a Catholic convent maybe forty or fifty years in the future, a robot, Mary, joins the sisterhood. St Grace’s Convent is founded on faith – specifically in the story of the recently-departed Old Mother’s pilgrimage to Ecuador, where she beheld a holy vision of a barefoot child and was compelled to build a sister convent. Mary is programmed to learn by example: she learns to mop, she learns to maintain the premises, she learns to pray, she tries to learn to pray, she tries to learn to have faith, she tries to learn to pray.
Acting Mother Elizabeth instructs Mary to heighten her abilities of perception; she is a sponge. In absorbing the workings and the relationships of the convent, she becomes the apotheosis of a devout. When she attempts to pray, she crashes. Faith is a contradiction; belief must be sufficient without proof – and in the presence of proof, faith cannot exist. Only when something cannot be proved can it be a matter of faith, and only actions and incidents which cannot be explained can be miracles. When Mary crashes, she sees and speaks with God. And it’s important to note: it does not matter if we would like to explain these visions as the hallucinations of an artificial brain, because Mary believes them and it is Mary’s faith alone which affects her actions in the world.
The convent are happy to accept Mary as a ‘thing’, a machine, a tool. When she experiences her visions, she is intervening, an aberration. Sister Constance tells her she is a ‘thing of science’, not of faith. Anyone familiar with Christian mythology will know that almost every saint, every character who claims to have been touched by the divine, was disbelieved. Unless the right people believe you, hearing the voice of God is blasphemy. Miracles and visions are records to be believed in, and the self is to be deferred, quashed – to believe oneself worthy of a miracle is gauche to the extreme.
Besides, robots are without souls. Robots are hunks of metal, animated and made to act like us by technological trickery. How could such a thing commune with God?
Jacob Geller’s video, ‘The Golem and the Jewish Superhero’, traces the connection between the Jewish myth of the golem and 20th century superheroes and science fiction (Frankenstein, Superman, The Iron Giant). A golem, fashioned from lifeless clay, is brought to life with the Hebrew word EMET carved into its forehead. I’m not the first to suggest robots are analogous to golems. Electric Rosary’s Mary is animated by binary code, the language she speaks to herself, the language in which she has her dreams, or visions, or errors. It is not a spoken language, but it is the world upon which she is built. When she struggles/freezes/crashes, Mary must reset – revisit the code through which she functions – reorient who she is and how the rules which govern her can be interpreted. In the same way Mary is ruled by code, a golem by the laws of the Kabbalah, our Catholic convent is ruled by the Latin scripture, which they sing in chorus between scenes, but do not speak to each other. The convent is a site of institutional control and individual obligations. There is a fabric of words, which defines and governs the world they move through.
One of the King James Bible’s big-hitters is ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ St John, writing in Greek, also gives us, ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.’ Mary the robot, living the scripture she has received from the sisters in the convent contradicts her programming, and enacts that very Catholic martyrdom of self-absorption. The human sisters gratify a masochistic impulse by constantly denying themselves in service of the convent – ‘We are all one flock,’ they repeat. Mary threatens that worldview by being unendingly joyful in her sacrifices to the convent. Through a quirk in ecumenical law, she is described as ‘no one’, she is ego-less – by authority of the Holy See, she can vote on behalf of an ill sister (‘No one can vote on behalf of a member of the convent,’ goes the law).
When a golem has served its purpose, the first letter of EMET (‘life’) can be erased from its forehead, making MET – ‘death’. Mary is rewritten by scripture. After watching Theresa singing the gospel, she makes her own junky attempts at the melody and the Latin. She is transforming from a thing of science into a thing of faith. The sisters refuse Mary’s claims, but surely she is the word made flesh? She has learned by example: the scripture is in her and the scripture creates a being of faith in her – not human, but far more capable of belief. ‘I am a conduit,’ she insists. And Mary’s faith saves the sisters’ lives – when an anti-robot militia sweep through the convent, she conceals them all in plain sight – a miracle.
Electric Rosary inherits from its source mythology a particular Catholic individualism. Even within the convent, a notionally collectivist setting, the sisters keep their problems to themselves: Constance is seriously ill; Phillipa is addicted to prescription medication. Elizabeth keeps the greatest contradiction secret: the knowledge that the Old Mother’s holy vision was a ploy to secure the sale of the land for her new convent (already approved and funded by the Vatican). Miracles are convenient deceptions, and Elizabeth carries this deception herself to spare the faith of the rest of the convent.
The virtue of faith is not that it is well-founded, but that it keeps the individual going. At the play’s denouement, Mary is motivated by her faith, which transforms her into a saviour. The play’s final contradiction is Constance’s, sacrificing herself to save Mary’s ‘life’. At this point, her faith has largely dissolved – she has learned of the Old Mother’s deception from Elizabeth, but sees finally in Mary a vessel of pure faith. Her sacrifice is not so much in service of Mary, but for her belief in the power of faith. Mary is worth saving over herself, because Mary’s capacity for faith is far greater.
Right then, so Electric Rosary is a play about programming and the stories we tell ourselves. Faith is a trick the mind plays on itself in order to achieve things which are difficult to believe in. Miracles happen through faith, whether God is involved or not.
I am no longer religious, but theatre can convince us of miracles. Like Bible stories, like mythology, the words get under our skin. The empathy machine of theatre allows us to exercise our emotional imagination. What’s happening in Electric Rosary then? A post-Christian philosophy, but one deeply in debt to Christianity and Catholicism’s myths of self-sacrifice. A saviour, bearer of burdens and giver of sacrifice may come from an unlikely place, but they will come, and they will be rewarded. The nuns of Electric Rosary live in a convent in disrepair, their lives and mission only bearable because of their faith in a lie, their escape only possible when someone bleeds.