I love theatre…just thought I should exclaim that.
The wife and I had the great pleasure of being invited to go and see ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ at the West Yorkshire Playhouse by my sister and her partner. WY Playhouse, for me, is renowned for high quality, fresh and innovative theatre. I have longed to see a show at this venue for many years but never made it. I was excited as we travelled down the A1(M) heading towards the familiar busy and complicated roads of Leeds.
As we sat in the courtyard theatre, with traditional red curtains covering the stage and equally conventional footlights, I was struck by how, woven in with these forced traditions were glimpses of 21st century living, ‘birdies’ (a small spotlight) were nestled into the footlights and Mumford and Sons playing in the background. All of this, despite being, on the face of things, ‘old hat’ established a strong atmosphere for this adaptation of a classic.
Lots of things in this show were strong and successful but there two things to note here.
The first one is the writing. Joel Horwood, the adapter of the show, has done an excellent job here. In my previous life as a director (if I can call it that now) I specialised in classic texts and often struggled to get good adaptations and translations. Bringing a classic into the ‘here and now’ is difficult and Horwood has done this subtly and successfully. The language, at times, was rooted in the style of the book but beautifully knitted into this language was the language of ‘Skins’ (for which Horwood writes). The script rapidly runs with ease and smoothness between the traditional and the 21st century that marks this script out as superb.
The role of an adapter/writer is really important for theatre and it should be in the Church. The script is really central to successful theatre and in churches, when wanting to do sketches, etc., they rush the script writing and the time is not spent on this. To lead worship, you need both gifted musicians but this means nothing if the songs are not written well. The same is true of theatre worship. Actors are important but if the script is poor it means nothing. Adapting the Bible for performance needs to have an understanding of the text but also of the theatre. Too often the Biblical text is known but not how to translate the story telling to the stage. This is something that artists like Horwood can offer the church in their worship.
The second point that needs to be raised is that of the overt Christian themes in the play. Having not read the 1200 page book I don’t know how clear this theme comes through but Horwood and Alan Lane (the director) have chosen to focus on it in particular. “I began to think about how as much as the story is about revenge, it’s also about forgiveness, and the nature of religion, and specifically Christianity.” Horwood comments, “…Edmund Dantes basically becomes an extremist; he becomes a Christian fundamentalist, and that’s a story that is fascinating to tell in today’s climate.”
The same idea and belief was commented on by Peter Brook as he explained why he wanted to tell
the story of two fundamentalists who struggle for tolerance and discover sacrificing their very life is the way to freedom. These two plays, both excellently executed, are a sign that theatre can express what society is wanting to communicate but struggling to find the way and the words. God’s gospel and Truth were vibrating through both texts and their delivery. At the back of the stage throughout the majority of Count of Monte Cristo was the three words ‘God is Love”. I was fascinated by this choice. It was unclear whether this was trying to be ironic or if it was drawing from Edmund’s Dantes religious call a stark comparison that should him to be a violent fundamentalist rather than truly Christian. I think and hope it was the latter.
This play was a great example of how theatre can be used as an evangelistic endeavour of telling stories of God whether biblical or secular. It showed God present in life and, despite the seeming decline of Christianity in Britain, speaking and moving and calling people to Himself. That’s why I love the theatre!
I’m left with one question, however…
Did this play need the Church to speak of the reality of forgiveness and its power, to remind people that the God seen and felt in this performance was real, alive and yearning for relationship? Does society to hear this? No… Let’s rephrase that… does society need to hear this? Rhetoric! What a wonderful tool!