I sat down in the Assembly Rooms, Durham, alone again and praying. The last time I sat in this venue it was to see a show with a friend I have found in Durham who is a sensitive performer and a passionate person. He was also in this show along with the President of DST, who I have had a couple of chats with and another male performer who, if he was staying around in Durham, would be on my list to ‘do business with’, i.e. chat through projects and his philosophies, etc. This was going to be a good show. I knew it before it began; the writing is top notch (Art by Yasmina Reza), the three performers were all guys I rated and the director I had heard great things about.
I was not disappointed.
It was a solid show. I relaxed quickly into it and engaged with the story (a good sign of good direction). The show takes you through a couple of days of destruction in relationship between three life time friends, all of which begins and ends with a ‘contemporary’ piece of art or ‘White S**t’ as one character calls it. I’d recommend watching it if you ever get the chance.
The next day, I sat down in the Rose Theatre, Kingston, this time with my mum and praying. This was by far the most excited I’d been in a long time. Peter Brook returns to England with his latest work and on the topic of religion and faith. As I read the programme notes my interest heightened even more and I thought about how useful this show is going to be.
I was disappointed.
Well, it was, like ‘Art’, a solid show. The aesthetics were, as to be expected, spot on, creative and engaging. The text was simple and concise. The performances were not overly complicated or ‘weighty’. The story was about two Muslim clerics, one who believed this prayer should be said 11 times and one who believed it should be said 12 times. This was a true story and so the mundane nature of an argument that end in bloodshed and destruction of families and clans was slightly comical. Brook had captured this simplistic argument perfectly and you really felt the stupidity of it all as men argued with great passion and righteousness over a petty thing such as this. It lacked a je ne sais quoi. The actors, stripped down their performances but at times it went into ‘lazy’ or unengaged. They weren’t bad performers and the story was told in a simple way and there were moments of great honesty but I wasn’t totally engrossed and in the world the whole time. If this was done by any other director I’d have been impressed but I have seen some of the greatest pieces of theatre from this guy and so he had a high bar to jump (and he’s 85!) I direct you to a summary of six critics reviews at the Guardian website and would respond by saying that I agree with the final critic Michael Billington.
This piece of theatre was meditative and unassuming but like some meditative services you switch off and say ‘Ok. I want to do something now!” This in reflection makes me ask questions on my faith journey.
The first of my duo of theatrical experiences was a play about rational argument where three men don’t see eye to eye and go on a circular argument in which you, as an audience member, get swamped and suffocated by. By the end of the play I was ready to scream and cry. Then the character who was trying to be tolerant and the mediator said the powerful words “Nothing fruitful has ever come from rational argument.” I breathed and found myself agreeing. When impasses are met the worst thing to do is continue on the rational argument! In opposition to this sits ’11 and 12’, with its calm unassuming approach to rational argument. The tolerance of the characters was overwhelming and as one critic described it ‘suffocating’ I agree that the simplistic approach to the impasse was too much the other way. The line that stood out for me, along with Michael Billington, “There are three truths; my truth, your truth and the Truth.” So easy and so pluralistic. Is this the Christian message?
Alongside these two shows sits a discussion with my mum, a self-professed liberal Catholic. We found ourselves in a discussion about the very heart of the Christian faith. Her questions stabbed at the very heart of my faith and left me flailing. I found myself in the same emotional state as when I watched ‘Art’ and the same need to scream and cry. Why? Because issues become murky when two opposing thoughts hit. I am someone who loves to live in the not-knowing, preaching the need to wrestle with God but wrestling with God is about aggressive striving to overcome not just nicely embracing Him. He asks us to put some effort in. I was striving to communicate the doctrine of salvation and of justification by faith. I failed to communicate it any helpful way. Words tumbled from my mouth in aggressive and overly-complicated ways.
In apologetic arguments we need the passion and vigour of ‘Art’ and the meditative voice and outworking of ’11 and 12’. Without the passion the meditation becomes dull and boring. Without the calm, concise voice the discussion becomes fretful and deathly.
What of theatre in church? There’s room for the rational argument of ‘Art’ in proclaiming the gospel and apologetics but equally there is room for the meditative worship of ‘11 and 12’ to allow people to be in a place and to inhabit the story. Too often, I think we go for the posing and the arguing and spend far less time in the worshipful story-telling. I’d like to find a way that theatre is worship in its true sense.
I’m talking tomorrow at a church in York on how we use theatre in the church… First time I’ll get to talk it out with such a large group. I hope they get something from it and not just me on my hobby horse!