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The Shell Pilgrim

by on 5 January 2021

Perceptions of Humanity

The Shell Pilgrim

by Susan Conte

Short Plays for Short Journeys, Wild Duck Productions, from 16th December

Review by Mark Aspen

Last summer, that is 2019 the last summer that one could move freely, I travelled the full length east to west of the Pyrenees in northern Spain.  Your poco-loco critic was in a vintage car, open to all the elements (and we met all of them in extremes).   The Pyrenees comprise mountains soaring to over 11,000 feet slashed with ravines and cañons, so to drive along their length you must often come down to lower ground.   (This makes the road route nearly 500 miles, but it was part of a three thousand mile trip, so what the hell.)   But when you drop down into the towns below, you often find that you are on the Camino.

The Camino de Santiago is the well-known walking route for pilgrims to the reputed tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.  You soon discover that it is not a single route, but a network like tributaries feeding a river.  Some feeders start the other side of Europe, so it is a long way.  (It is 500 miles even if you start at the French border.)   In my weather-battered and tired state, I would feel genuine empathy for the pilgrims.  I felt a desire to join the walkers, but being in my eighth decade a shaking open car is enough adventure. 

The Camino is a pilgrimage dating back to the ninth century, but it begs the question, how many of today’s walkers are pilgrims on a spiritual quest or doing religious penance?  This is the question posed in The Shell Pilgrim, a podcast by Wild Duck Productions released on-line just before Christmas.  It is a bijou piece, in two senses.  It is part of an inaugural season of a series of playlets entitled Short Plays for Short Journeys.  At ten minutes, it does what it says on the tin.  Designed to be listened to on the move, it is an intensely concentrated piece.  In the second sense, it is a brilliant gem.  Susan Conte’s writing is incisive and gripping.  Under the direction of Jane Gough, the podcast has been created with skill and clarity. 

Two walkers Amanda and Brendan arrive at an albergue, one of the string of hostels and refuges that serve pilgrims on the Camino.  They are strangers to each other, but soon discover that each other’s motives are somewhat different.   Brendan, an Irish Catholic, has an introspective approach to his faith and is on the pilgrimage to honour the memory of his late, and obviously beloved, mother.  Amanda, a free spirit, has a forthright reply when asked why she is walking the Camino: “I’m here to get laid”!   When Brendan’s flustered reply is blurted out, you could almost feel him blush:  “Are you having any success?”  

Shortly another walker arrives, Francesco, an exuberant young Italian.  Ostensibly, he is with a group, and wants to take over the whole hostel with them, but we never meet them.  It seems their progress is too slow for him and he loses them.  He has a devil-may-care attitude:  “It’s in the lap of the gods” (not of God).  He describes himself as a poet.  Francesco’s motivation is to discover poetry.

Over the next few days they walk together, but in four short scenes we discover the motivation of each of them is not what they thought.  Or does facing the reality of the walk change their motives?  Or their attitudes?  For this spiritual peregrination is in truth a trial of their personalities.

Gradually it becomes obvious that they have lost the route and are getting more and more lost in a barren countryside.  None of them has a map.  Brendan’s answer is recourse to scriptural guidance and he begins iterating from the Bible (somewhat inaccurately) much to the annoyance of his companions who dream of bodily comforts, Amanda of smoking pot, Francesco of the cooking pot of his nonna.  Symbolically, they are lost in different sense.  They are seeking fundamentals: what is truly important, the reality of a spiritual life, and an interwoven theme of the preciousness of motherhood.

The crux comes with a surprise revelation from Amanda.  Then, on the day when they seem to be the most lost, there is what could be accurately described as a Damascene moment, when everything changes for this trio of unlikely pilgrims and we see them from an entirely different perspective.

The Shell Pilgrim is remarkable well cast and each of the three actors inhabit their characters such that we know them as real people.  Focussing on her more on than on the men, the plot is driven by Amanda and Fleur de Henrie Pearce in this role makes Amanda’s emotional journey totally believable.  Craig Barclay portrays the earnest Brendan with insight and accuracy.  Brendan’s zeal is clear, but Barclay pulls out his likeable character.  Moreover, the accent is spot-on but subtle.  The same is true of Daniel Emilio Baldock as Francesco, who hits the target with the ebullient Italian take on the joys of life.  This is balanced with a feet on the ground depiction of Francesco, who would otherwise be largely a foil to the actions of the other two.

The podcast, as an art form, relies solely on sound, so it is blessing that the track is subtly enhanced by Harry Doyle’s unobtrusive sound design.   Moreover, Doyle has composed original music for the podcast, which fits the mood perfectly.  There is a slightly mediaeval feel to it, but the style is very much that of Enrique Granados.   Introducing the piece, and I understand the full series of Short Plays for Short Journeys, is Elizabeth Ollier.  Her beautiful voice and clarity of enunciation is superb.

Author Susan Conte has used an economy of words and action, neatly constructed to form a concatenation of perceptions of the driving forces of humanity.   As a walking companion The Shell Pilgrim would lighten your burden, but beware, you would probably wish the journey was longer.

Mark Aspen, January 2021

Photography by Antonio Maria Manrique

From → Drama, On-Line, Wild Duck

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