Nothing I can say will really do justice this production. From the moment the genial hitchhikers, smiling and grimacing by turns, fail to catch a lift, leaving them no option but to pitch up at Lourdes, to the final hear-rending dialogue between Peyramale and Bernadette, it was captivating.
Musically, it was a treat, visually there was so much to be admired. The vitality and variety of the melodies, at times moving, at times spontaneously exuberant, delighted from the start…Most importantly, the play worked as a drama. There was a genuine exploration here of matters of faith, of suffering, of life.
It would be to misunderstand VISION to say it is simply Bernadette’s story, yet it is one of its strengths that her story is well told. We see Bernadette confronted by the religious and secular authorities of her time, idolised by the chattering classes anxious to catch a frisson of the occult, and consumed by the demands of the poor and the sick. Very powerfully VISION captures the fact that Bernadette’s experiences lead to a kind of Calvary. They bring her suffering, the most painful of which is her having to move away from Lourdes. Did she go willingly? Did she see what Peyramale, her parish priest, saw: that her staying in Lourdes would be to the detriment of the shrine? The play leaves this question unanswered, one of a number of ambiguities that keep at bay an overly pious view of Bernadette and the apparitions she saw.
The other considerable strength of VISION is that the simple dramatic device of having the story of Bernadette and Lourdes narrated and acted out by the customers of a present-day Lourdes café works extremely well, done for the benefit of our two unfortunate hitchhikers, stranded for a night in Lourdes. The device provides a perfect excuse for some of the highly entertaining comic moments (for who could resist hamming things up a bit in front of friends when out for a drink in the Café Francais?) but it also allows one to sense, through the unity of place, that the Lourdes of the present is imbued with the Lourdes of the past. his interventions brought with them a renewed sense of anticipation. The role suits an actor with the air of someone who lives on a diet of late nights, Gaulois and philosophy for bedtime reading.
At the end of this production of VISION, one of the hitchhikers chooses to stay, one to depart. It is entirely in tune with the rest of the play that we don’t discover why. Lourdes remains ambiguous to the end. Perhaps the one who stays, stays because he has been touched by the story of Bernadette, or perhaps he stays because he enjoys the party atmosphere and the friendliness of the people he has met. And the one who goes, well, maybe it’s because he didn’t find Bernadette’s story very convincing, but maybe he finds there is something discordant between the partying and the story he has just heard. We just don’t know.
And what about the rest of us? As the Narrator comes to the end of his story he says to the hitchhikers: “That’s the story, you can take it or leave it”. True enough, but his words don’t come close to expressing what is at stake in that choice. However, the Narrator suggests that maybe a visit to Lourdes itself might help. Once there, there would be ample opportunity to respond to Bernadette’s invitation: “Please look around you, why can’t you see? This place is more than you or me.”