We are in utero. Snug, secure, surrounded. The breathing is rhythmic; our senses are challenged. Something is wrong. Not everyone makes it out. The brevity of this vignette belies its impact. We must steel ourselves. Established immediately and irrefutably, there is love and loss at the heart of this script.

We are about to find out if aquafilia and claustrophobia play nicely together. A looming, peaked karst abuts a pier constructed with sturdy pylons. Our adventurous self longs to deep-dive into the underworld of playwright Caleb Lewis at this world premiere, but we want some reassurance that we will be able to resurface. This dramatic tension is but one of the masterstroke devices that lends much to the success of this thriller.

Nathan O’Keefe stars in State Theatre Company South Australia's production of Cathedral by Caleb Lewis. Photo © Matt Byrne.

Nathan O’Keefe stars in State Theatre Company South Australia’s production of Cathedral by Caleb Lewis. Photo © Matt Byrne.

South Australia’s Limestone Coast is the location where the mettle of the protagonist Clay (Nathan O’Keefe) is established as he discovers his passion – cave diving. On his exploratory quest, his interwoven tales take us to Thailand, Scotland and to places travel agents won’t send you – into water-filled cavernous sinkholes. As muted and murky depths are plumbed from a canvas of lost souls, we are gifted insights into worlds both real and allegorical.

Clay’s name alone suggests a connection to the underwater rock formations that have claimed the lives of other adventure seekers. As we meet his friends and family and their stories, we are forced to look into the eyes of grief. We examine relationships and how easily these are lost; the fleeting nature of life and the impact of even our smallest choices.

Shannon Rush adroitly directs O’Keefe who shines in this role. As he draws us into this story, his eyes gleam with the forces at loggerheads – risk versus thrilling reward. He seems to bend time with his perfect pacing and with the requisite shedding of layers ultimately reveals the condition of the man beneath. He beautifully portrays a vulnerability barely below the surface and the merest suggestion of a man born reckless.

Lewis’s graphic and luminous script is rich with metaphors and some of the most evocative writing imaginable; it is a logophile’s dream. Dotted with humour, the interweaving plots all orbit around our protagonist like so many bubbles escaping from a scuba tank. Like its namesake, the structure of this play is grand, informative and magnificent. As the story cycles back from whence it came, it feels like we have undertaken a rite of passage; a pass to the denouement of the story. The entry has scant regard for our comfort and the reactions are visceral. It is brilliant.

Nathan O’Keefe stars in State Theatre Company South Australia's production of <i>Cathedral</i> by Caleb Lewis. Photo © Matt Byrne.

Nathan O’Keefe stars in State Theatre Company South Australia’s production of Cathedral by Caleb Lewis. Photo © Matt Byrne.

Lighting & Video Designer Mark Oakley is at the top of his game throughout, with transformative marine-hued ripples, silt, danger and currents all lifting this production to its highest ebb. Sound Designer & Composer Andrew Howard fully controls our love or fear of water, dropping us into a rescue mission and then hallucinating, in the middle of a dance club. It’s quite the experience.

Notable voiceovers from Anna Steen, Chris Pitman, Arran Beatie, Annabel Matheson and Rory Walker add depth and layers to the proceedings, revealing in their interactions with Clay, necessary backstory elements which shape the main character.

There is a gentle but quintessential Australianism about this production and it provides comfort in the steadiness of its charm, when the water beneath us is abysmal. Lessons in bravery and camaraderie juxtapose “dying by degrees” and ultimately, there is an overarching message of hope for plights universal. Vicariously, Cathedral has the ability to attach a floatation device to dark troubles and let gravity do the heavy lifting.


Cathedral plays at Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre until 21 May before a South Australian tour until 10 June. More information.

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