The Temptation of St Anthony

Welcome to the Edinburgh Spiritual Emergency Support Group. The name of this particular organisation is emblazoned on a board at the back of the stage and we feel as though we have entered a meeting with a peculiar twist on the format of Alcoholics Anonymous. Clearly though, the problems faced by the attendees here are of a very particular nature – namely, spirit possession.

The abundance of things going on simultaneously at many times during the performance certainly is fitting.

The Temptation of St Anthony is the product of an intensively developed and thoroughly researched project which seeks to explore the medical, cultural and spiritual implications of instances of demon possession. The scope of the work seemingly goes far beyond the remit of this performance piece, and it must be observed that its fascinatingly broad topic does not quite exert the impact that one might expect based upon its extraordinarily rich artistic and cultural heritage.

The company is made up of a group of performers from the UK, Egypt, New Zealand, Japan, and Sweden, and it is this diversity which gives the piece much of its most relevant meaning. By flooding our senses with an array of overlapping perspectives and attitudes, director Tom Bailey ensures that we leave with, at the very least, a problematised notion of what it might really mean to be ‘possessed’. Our own personal preconceptions, informed undoubtedly by our own culturally-imbued assumptions, are starkly revealed to be woefully lacking.

Having acknowledged this strength, this performance is by no means trouble-free. One of the greatest barriers to its success is in the artists’ handling of the acoustics of the space. Important dialogue is frequently lost, due to either the volume or speed of delivery, or because there are so many other auditory stimuli competing for attention that the voice is drowned out. On one occasion, a sequence of frenzied movement is only understood by the line of text which precedes it – other more confusing moments are perhaps given due explanation, but it is unclear here.

Further to this, the composition of some parts of the piece seem to further hinder a coherent reading and are, more unforgivingly, apparently superfluous. We see physical episodes of mirroring and ‘follow-the-leader’ type exercises which appear to have been used in the devising process and dropped into the final work without further development in order to serve a particular purpose. The abundance of things going on simultaneously at many times during the performance certainly is fitting, but here it is overused and ultimately leads to a loss of meaning too far past the point of being to exemplify the state of mind of one possessed.

Ultimately this is a piece which may lead you to do further research into the issues raised after the performance – it is, however, an opportunity missed to provide more answers, to complement the many questions, during the course of the work itself. 

Reviews by Joshua Clarke


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The Blurb

Inspired by the ancient legend of a man who spent 35 years in solitude in the Egyptian desert, this Wellcome Trust-supported ensemble performance explores, through song and body, landscapes where mental health and religious experience collide. How to treat a religiously-orientated mental illness? This is a problem facing NHS psychiatrists treating patients who say they are possessed by spirits. Is there a limit to what Western medicine can heal, when faced with a dark night of the soul? With insight from psychiatry and anthropology, this show plunges soul-first into the human experience of demon possession.