Wrestling With Truth (part I)

I went to see Medea last night at Richmond Georgian Theatre (which is a beautifully restored space.) This play by Euripides is a classic text with characters of depth, substance and emotional clout. The play tackles some complex, difficult and intricate human emotions; vengeance, love, hate, sacrifice, disillusionment. Medea as the lead is one of the female actress’ alternative to Hamlet in ‘parts most wanted to be played’ (along with Nora, Hedda Gabler, Antigone, Joan of Arc, to name a few more!) She is brought to a foreign country by her husband, who she has sacrificed so much for, only to discover he has a new woman, leaving her and her boys to deal with it. The play is her acts of vengeance on him and Creon who refuse to have pity on her. I have seen it done well in the past (I cannot remember the company or director) and it tapped into the emotional journey of this female character and did not shy away from engaging with pain and turbulence.

This production, however, was clunky, simplistic, predictable and far too controlled for the play. I spent the hour and a half huffing and puffing at disappointing directorial decisions and shallow emotional involvement by the actors. I don’t want to go on a rant, which I did, regrettably, with my wife and in-laws as soon as the lights went up at the end but I may slip in to it as I go on. Lyn Gardner, sensible voice of the Guardian review team, has made some comments which I agree with on the Guardian website.
As I slipped into my angry place where all things frustrate and annoy me I was reminded of my feelings on so many ‘church dramas’ that I have been witness to (I have even perpetrated some of these for which I am truly sorry!) I reflected as I watched Medea; what is it that annoys and frustrates me about ‘church drama’?
So often the drama in church portrays the factual story in a simplistic way. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself but when used for people who know the factual story or who will hear it read before or after the drama, it becomes pointless. My wife’s reflections on this production of Medea was she followed the plot, this is a good thing and I would not deny that the story was portrayed but it was only the facts of ‘this happens, then this, which leads to this.’ What this production lacked and what the majority of ‘church drama’ lacks is emotional reality or depth.
A story is engaging when the facts are shown with some emotional resonance. Theatre is about engaging an audience in a story so they can reflect on the character’s emotions, thoughts and actions. So when telling a bible story, we as Christian actors, would rather show the childish, factual, comic book version of the passage rather than engage in why an action happened and why a character did what they did. Theatre wrestles with the why questions and religion, as it is quick to testify to in the science debates of the past, do too. So why do we shy away, in our dramas and portrayal of biblical narrative, from the emotional complexities of human life, the difficulties of life choices. The people in the pews want to have emotional resonances as much, if not more, than those in the stalls at the theatre.
The portrayals in Medea were too simple. Lyn Gardner rightly says that the characters slipped into pantomime. I didn’t believe decisions were rightly made by the characters and the justification for actions were not clear. The issues raised in the story were too easily pushed aside for a clean solution. The director missed out on the truth! They neglected any alternative emotional conflict within characters and so I didn’t believe in it.
Again, I reflected on ‘church drama’. As a director, it was my role to find the truth within a scene or character and draw it out for an audience to see. As a future minister I see a striking similarity in my ministry; to find the truth in life events or personal experiences and drew it out for people to see. We in churches are so quick to preach the simple answers the ‘telling things as they are’ approach and neglect the emotional complexities of life. We portray things too simplistically with predictable and too controlled answers. The people want to engage in something real, truthful and if they don’t want to, for obvious painful reasons, they need to.
The Bible tells a story of complexity and difficulty but throughout it all I hear a God who says ‘Wrestle. For in the difficulties there you will find truth.’
For me the cross speaks into this. God did not take the two dimensional, easily fixed approach to redemption. Instead He delved into the pain, the emotions, the intricacies of life and showed us the fruits of doing so…resurrection and new life. He didn’t just speak the path to God’s glory, He lived it, embodied it so that we could see and follow. The actor can’t just tell us what emotion the character is feeling, they must show it for it to be real and truthful.
So I stand on my soap box and preach: Theatre directors, ministers and all people grasp reality, wrestle with the pain and discomfort, the unknowing for in doing so we find truth. Take up the complexities of life and go deep with them for it is there that you find resurrection and new life! Theatre is about wrestling with life to find truth and so is Christian discipleship and when we begin to use this art form well we shall understand God; who is the way, the truth and the life.