A crucifix, a menorah, the smell of incense. A single chair for a single performer, acting out her four roles. Shelley Mitchell enters this already sacred space slowly, her focus highly practised. She tells the extraordinary true story of Gitta Mallasz, a Hungarian artist who discovered faith in the most unorthodox of ways.
Mitchell is a supremely gifted and highly trained performer and her biographical source material is philosophically and historically compelling.
Mallasz and her three friends are pagans without a God. They read ancient scripture but are not beholden to a particular religion: the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita and the I Ching are all devoured in search of answers. Suddenly they receive a message: Hanna, a graphic designer, channels four distinctly different ethereal beings calling themselves angels. Theological dialogues between the angels and the artists play out in the increasingly dangerous context of Nazi Hungary and are adapted from Mallasz’s own transcripts by Mitchell, who both plays Mallasz and embodies the angels.
Mitchell’s performance is superb. She switches between Mallasz and her heavenly tutors with effortless physical ease. A slight change in posture and a subtle vocal transformation is all she needs to make the changes utterly believable. She makes it look easy but her technique is honed with pinpoint precision. She is an enigmatic presence and her characters crackle with spiritual life.
Sadly, the same cannot always be said of her adaptation. The show’s eighty minute running time is ambitious but never fully justified. The level of precision and grace on display is admirable but that should never come at the expense of a loss of focus. Too often, especially in the middle of the show, Mitchell becomes bogged down in increasingly impenetrable metaphysical philosophy, as the angels impart such thoughts as “If you listen, even the stones will speak”. Such a statement is perfectly thought-provoking in and of itself, but, coming as it does after 55 minutes of largely similar material, we stop thinking and start dreaming. Indeed, the show’s final act is propelled far more by Mallasz’s biographical story – she sheltered and saved over a hundred Jewish women and children from the Nazis in the war’s final years – than it is by the angels’ unchanging faith-based monologues.
This makes for a deeply frustrating experience. Mitchell is a supremely gifted and highly trained performer and her biographical source material is philosophically and historically compelling. However, she indulges herself too much in trying to create a shared spiritual experience that is never quite realised. When, eventually, the menorah is lit, our patience is very nearly extinguished.