“Visiting the theatre leads to fornication, intemperance, and every kind of impurity,” wrote St John Chrysostom.

Nobody reads the homilies of fourth century bishops any more, but the holy saint may have been right, as 17 centuries have proved. But you’d have to be very sick indeed to be led into fornication and impurity by the events portrayed in The Choir, a play by Brisbane writer Errol Bray that has been staged Australia-wide, as well as in London, the United States and Yugoslavia since its first production 30 years ago.

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It still hasn’t lost its power to shock, and is even more relevant in the current context of the royal commission into child sexual abuse, even though the setting is different, and for once it isn’t clergy who are in the firing line.

The scene is a seven-bed dormitory for a group of choirboys, all of whom are from orphanages. They’re here for some kind of choral competition, and they’re housed on the upper floor of a building, which seems to be locked. Right, we think, here it comes! Well yes, there is (often unwanted) sodomy, sexual domination and abuse, but it all comes from the head boy, who at 16 is about to leave the choir. He conquers by offering love to these poor loveless children, who finally draw lots to go nightly to his bed, but there’s no serious rivalry among them, as they all love him too much to pick fights. The real enemy is the Matron, who never appears on stage, whom they suspect of trying to lure head boy Andrew into her own bed.

Tacky, we think, but suppress our natural distaste, and it all plods along gently until the first horror is revealed: one of the boys has been castrated by the matron. Gradually it becomes clear this has happened to all the boys, and we are left to wonder if this is worse than sodomy? And why has she done it? To ensure their voices don’t break and they’ll continue to win the competition, we assume, even though she well knows that castration doesn’t automatically prevent the voice breaking unless it’s done well before puberty.

The only one who has escaped is head boy Andrew (played with a sinister appeal by Christos Mourtzakis), for the obvious reason she wants him in her bed, and that he is about to leave the choir soon anyway.

What gives this play its depth is the differences between the seven boys, none of whom look, feel or behave alike. One of them (Stephen Quinn is deeply moving as Michael) refuses to speak and spends his time cutting out faces from magazines. It transpires that the year before he had been Andrew’s chosen love object, but was rejected and castrated. Another is a little-boy-lost (Johnny Legobye) who just wants to be loved. Another, the one with the most beautiful voice (Christopher Batkin), is hit in the throat during a fight with another dormitory and can no longer sing, so kills himself with the help of Michael.

There are other atrocities, too, involving faeces and faces, murder and mystery, and it’s all the more depressing if we read it not as a true story but as a metaphor for the way children in institutions can be trapped and abused with no chance of finding a sympathetic audience.

The staging in this production is a little awkward, with the rapid succession of short scenes making time changes rather messy, and with too many long fades after climaxes are revealed. But it’s a play still worth seeing. It should tour nationally, perhaps as compulsory viewing for the members of the upcoming royal commission.

The details: The Choir plays the Brisbane Powerhouse’s Visy Theatre until December 15. Tickets on the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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