The Bull, The Moon, and the Coronet of Stars runs at Merrigong from April 19-27, Griffin Theatre from May 2-June 8, and Hothouse Theatre from June 13-22. By Van Badham, directed by Lee Lewis.
In 2005, the first titles in the Canongate Myth Series were published. In these books, contemporary authors took ancient myths and reimagined them for modern audiences. Margaret Atwood took the Odyssey and created the Penelopiad, which focused on Odysseus’s wife Penelope as she waited faithfully for him for twenty years. Jeanette Winterson revised the story of Atlas and Heracles in Weight. Michael Faber retold the story of Prometheus in The Fire Gospel. I could go on – there are a bunch of titles.
I’m not sure if the series is still ongoing, but regardless, Van Badham’s play The Bull, The Moon, and the Coronet of Stars would fit right in. A retelling of the story of Ariadne, her relationship with and eventual abandonment by Theseus, and her eventual union with Dionysus, it is ambitious, lyrical, fierce, and beautiful.
I am an absolute sucker for shows with small casts and romantic plots. Shows that number among my favourites from the last couple of years include Midsummer (a play with songs) and This Year’s Ashes, as well as the most recent show I wrote about, Once. However, this is not a formula to ensure I’ll automatically like a show, as my somewhat vitriolic reaction to Sex With Strangers demonstrates. In this genre, The Bull, The Moon, and the Coronet of Stars is an absolute standout for me. It does what all good romantic stories should do: it tells a small story, because what smaller, more intimate story is there than one of a connection between two people? and then it makes that small story universal. In this show, this is particularly pronounced, because that small story becomes myth, the characters at once modern, relatable people, and kings and gods and princesses.
(Because the story of Ariadne, Theseus, and Dionysus is a relatively well known myth, I’m going to assume some degree of familiarity with the story here. I don’t think this is hugely spoiler-y, but if you really, really don’t want any, you might want to stop reading now.)
Our Ariadne is Marion (Silvia Colloca), an artist, who meets her Theseus, Michael (Matt Zeremes) when she works in a museum. Their love is hidden, so hidden neither is really aware of it, but it is still powerful, passionate, and transgressive enough to manifest in the form of a Minotaur. From an academic-history-of-love perspective, the love story told here is like one you find in pre-modern romances, before love was domesticated: love, passion, and desire are dangerous, destructive, devastating. Love is a wild force that destroys rather than creates. This is mirrored in the language. It is so easy to get swept away on the tide of words that Badham unleashes, just like Marion and Michael get swept away by their passion. This is an incredibly difficult script – the diegetic form, as well as the fact that the dialogue of both characters overlaps, particularly in one very memorable section between Marion and Michael in the museum, requires incredible precision and cooperation. Colloca and Zeremes are absolutely masterful. Director Lee Lewis has managed to ensure that neither actor is overwhelmed by the other: in this piece, where getting swept away is so easy, she has maintained a truly remarkable balance.
This is true both of the section with Marion and Michael and the section with Marion and Mark (also played by Zeremes). (The structure of The Bull, The Moon, and the Coronet of Stars is a little like To The Lighthouse: two long sections separated by one short, transitional section in the middle.) Mark is a very different character to Michael – he is much funnier, much freer, far less repressed – and it would be easy for Marion and her pain to get a little lost in the wake of his shiny-brightness, but the balance is maintained beautifully. After the overwhelming passion Marion felt for Michael, it seems almost impossible not only to us but to Marion that she will ever love again. In technical terms, her relationship with Mark faces its point of ritual death, the moment where it seems like it can never happen, before it even begins. But theirs is a different kind of love, and a different kind of story. This is not the destructive passion of pre-modern romance. This is a more modern love. It grows slowly, warmly. There is no explosive eruption of passion like there was with Marion and Michael. Instead, there is just a moment of tenderness: a small moment, with mythological proportions.
If it’s not obvious, I not only really, really liked this play but found it incredibly interesting from an academic perspective, what with love, romance and all that jazz kind of being my thing. I’m fascinated by the way romance is represented on the stage. I have an academic piece about this percolating in my mind in which I think this play is going to feature, so if you’re like, “Jodes! tell me more about how The Bull, The Moon, and the Coronet of Stars is located in the literary history of love!” you might get your wish. But I’ll stop talking about that now and talk a little about the actual production values before I finish. I’ve already mentioned what a superb job director Lee Lewis and actors Silvia Colloca and Matt Zeremes have done, but I’d like to reiterate it. Van Badham has created an absolutely exquisite script, but it’s also an incredibly difficult one, and it is staged with such restraint and such respect for the poetic, luxuriant language. Colloca is at her best when she shows us the rawness of Marion’s heartbreak. Zeremes’s transformation from intense, repressed Michael to wild, open Mark is amazing. The set is simple and functional (I’ll be really interested to see how it translates between spaces, actually) and Lewis has used it to create a rich imaginary world in which this small-but-universal story takes place.
The Bull, The Moon, and the Coronet of Stars is simply a beautiful piece of theatre. Its layers of language are lyrical and lush. It is a little story that becomes a large one not just because of its connection to myth but because that small moment – that small moment of connection with another person – is something that is universally relatable. It is tragic and funny, sad and uplifting, raw and hopeful, heartbreaking and heartwarming. Go and see it. You won’t regret it.