Tag Archives: Faith

Temptations of snow…


We all need to hear or read a simple story sometimes. I increasingly enjoy going back to stories written for children – but fundamentally they’re written for humans, so that gives me the permission, as I am one of those (or trying to be).

I enjoyed The Snow Queen (written 1845) as a child because it was sparkly, pretty, exciting and mysterious. I saw it again recently as an adult, with an eight year old friend – it was slightly less sparkly, fairly earthy rather than pretty, but just as exciting and mysterious.

I would say that’s rather like growing up – life develops rough edges, becomes less pretty and more complex, and its challenges remain.

The story is itself exactly like this too. It is about two best friends, a boy called Kay and a girl called Gerda.  They live with their grandmother and play amongst the flowers each day.  All is innocent and happy.  They sing the song ‘Roses bloom and cease to be, But we shall the Christ-child see.’

There is in existence, however, a mirror (created by a Hobgoblin years before), which unfortunately has the nasty skill of distorting the truth – everything that is beautiful is reduced to nothing, and everything that is evil is magnified. A person looking in the mirror sees the worst side of everything.  A confusing state of affairs you might say.  Most awful of all – the mirror has become broken and shattered into millions of pieces of glass all over the earth.  Instead of one dangerous mirror, we have its powers multiplied – infecting everything.

Time passes, the children grow a little, and a tiny piece of the mirror makes its way into Kay’s eye and heart. Disaster – particularly as once it is in there, he cannot feel it.  He is immune to its corruption and it becomes his ‘normal’. He soon finds himself under the spell of the Snow Queen (who happens to be around in the area) and who is a control freak, to say the least.  She seems protective and caring, but only wishes to trap him from being his true self and living an authentic life.  He is taken away by her and is to serve her only.

snow queen le cain

So not only can he not see anything rightly or justly, but he loses his identity, sense of self and is manipulated by the Snow Queen. He forgets his past and his content life with Gerda, and has even told Gerda she is ugly when she cries.  He prefers the cold-hearted Snow Queen who never cries (probably because she was told when she was a child it was the wrong thing to do).  You could say this is an existential crisis.  Kay tries to pray, but forgets how to.

Gerda has a difficult journey to rescue him. She is alone and scared, but finds people and creatures in the forest to help her along the way.  She also prays while she is travelling.  I’d say she was better placed than Kay to survive – however hard life gets, she knows who she is and has some friends – who like her for who she is.

After much adventure, Gerda reaches the Snow Queen’s palace, finds Kay, and bursts into tears of joy. Her tears save the day – and quite literally the life and soul of Kay, as they fall on him, and melt the glass in his heart.  He in turn ‘feels’ again, hence cries also – his own tears pushing out the piece of glass in his eye so that he recognises his friend.

I always get slightly choked up at this point in the story. The children in the audience are usually just happy and relieved that Kay and Gerda are best mates again, but for me it is the journey of suffering and forgiveness being the most profound forces for change in a person’s life.  Kay’s personhood is redeemed by the warmth and honesty of Gerda’s tears.  He doesn’t recognise her but she recognises him for his true worth, and that is what transforms him.  The tears that repelled him are now the very tears that restore his true humanity.

‘And the moral of the story is…’ – well, there could be many on an individual and world level. Six come to mind: usually the people who trap us or don’t encourage us to flourish are themselves trapped.  Loving someone and not giving up on them is the catalyst for them to love themselves, (and is the foundation of the Christian faith).  Be mindful of which eyes you see the world with – the eyes of judgement or the eyes of empathy.  The journey of life may seem insurmountable but support comes from unlikely places and the kindness of strangers has great benefit – Gerda took a risk by giving out her true self in the forest, and offered kindness along the way – in turn she got kindness back and gained respect.  People become powerful but it doesn’t mean they are the right people to give power to.  The corrupted mirror gave enhanced visibility to the wrong people, while diminishing other people and emotions who should not have been.  Many things in life are transient – some things are not and are worth holding to – hence the line they sing about roses and the Christ-child.

Kay is impressed by the Snow Queen’s wealth and beauty yet in the midst of that he forgets who he is, and the things that used to make him happy, including prayer. Gerda on the other hand, is able to hold on to who she is and doesn’t give up on the more humble, less materialistic aspects of life, and ultimately reaches her destination saving her friend from a terrible existence.

At the end of the story when the children are back with their grandmother, Hans Christian Andersen has the grandmother speak a line from Matthew 18 verse 3 ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ When we think of the qualities of a child – spontaneous, open, and most of all not scared to be who they naturally are – these are also the sturdy qualities we can lead life with.  Kay’s journey could be seen as a coming of age tale – he becomes immersed in a complex world and chooses to grow up too quickly gathering the baggage and corruption of adulthood, and the person he was is forgotten.  So that line in the bible taken more broadly is about asking us to accept who we are – and go to God, our family and friends, as ourselves – nothing more.  It’s a hard thing to do, because it’s hard to recognise that strength of character in fact comes in being vulnerable.

It’s also at the heart of the Christmas message when in Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone’ – and amongst this we wonder what we have to give to a world which is still just as hard, hostile and seemingly impenetrable. But Gerda’s tears melted something bigger and more powerful than her.  Even if we are laden with wealth and material luck, none of that will make any difference if it’s not given with the gift of love and authenticity – and by far the most important are the latter two.


The Polar Express (the train of life)


I’m not the first to look for the deeper meaning in the animated film The Polar Express. It is a wise film interspersing thoughtful conversation with high action – it would make a thrilling fast ride at a theme park.  The music is also wonderful – it would also make a great musical.


Faith, and lack of it, along with the innocence and loss of childhood, are big themes, but also the general challenges of life that we experience whether child or adult. There are some key one-liners from the train conductor (Tom Hanks) – I thought one might pop up “it’s not the destination but the journey that is important” but instead, better, it’s: “it doesn’t matter where the train goes, it’s making the decision to get on it that matters.”


It is a risk for all the children to jump on the train but they do and discover aspects of themselves that they either didn’t know they had or find they needed confirmation of the qualities they did have. On the journey they are challenged, but also helped, by Doubt – the spirit of the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man who appears on and off in various parts of the train – also played by Tom Hanks.

This pairing of these two characters (conductor and spirit man) could be seen as theological – Hope (the conductor) and Doubt (the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man) are two sides of the same coin. We experience one with the other in most cases, but with friendship, empathy, and our own individual reflection, we can get through them.  Three of the children become good mates – one boy struggles particularly with the concept of Christmas (we’re not given details but we assume he’s had a tricky home life, is lonely, and certainly doesn’t come from a wealthy background) but he is valued by his two friends.


Materially the children are on the search for presents but learn a great deal more about the gifts they already have within them and also what they need to learn and do to maintain hope and faith. The conductor makes a passing but key comment ‘sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.’

Holding onto the unseen is the challenge in life – the symbol of the bell in the film personifies this. Doubt says you must see to believe.  Hope says you sometimes have to believe in order to understand, and to see.


Happy Christmas.

The Dangers of Labelling


The Christians by Lucas Hnath. Published by Nick Hern Books and first performed at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Louisville, Kentucky, 8 March 2014. The Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, 8 September – 3 October.

I’d heard very positive comments on this play from its time in New York in 2015, the 2015 Edinburgh Festival and its transfer to The Gate Theatre. I was not disappointed and came away troubled – and reminded – about the reality of a religion (and perhaps religion in general).

The staging is simple and you walk into a deliberately blurred setting between drama and church. The Gate is a tiny theatre so the stage and its joyful choir on the stage are very close.  A luminous cross sits at the back of the stage in between their two sides.  In front of the choir are two standing microphones from where Pastor Paul (a brilliant William Gaminara from TV’s Silent Witness) and Associate Pastor Joshua deliberate the theology of salvation to the shock of their congregation – which is both the choir behind them and us the audience.

The microphones are at first a distraction since the whole script is delivered through them, but we have to remember that this is a ‘mega’ church in America. I also found the microphones to be metaphors: when you are talking about your faith and particularly when what you say is controversial, it does feel like the whole world is listening, and likely making its judgment.

The whole play hangs on the question ‘what happens when you die if you are not a Christian?’ and Pastor Paul is haunted by his witnessing of a boy who runs into a burning house to save his sister’s life only to lose his own. The boy worships a different God and is likely to never have heard of Jesus Christ.  As Stephen Portlock of the Independent Catholic News, October 8th, says, ‘Ghastly as is the notion of this compassionate young man going to Hell, it is hardly less of a travesty of justice than that of an all forgiving God who places the murderer and his victim together in Heaven.  Furthermore, if salvation is open to all then why bother being a Christian at all?’

Gaminara delivers the powerful sermon with his news that he does not believe in Hell with complete sensitivity, earnestness and passion, and manages empathy too. The aftermath is devastating – members of his congregation leave as does his colleague and friend Joshua, whom Paul had mentored, feeling betrayed that he drops a theological bomb shell at this point in time when all the church’s debts are paid off from the congregation’s gifts, and his marriage faces a split.  At the start you support Pastor Paul in his strength and want to believe what he says, but the catastrophic implications come crashing down.  He didn’t share any of this, what some would call, revisionist and progressive theology with his wife until she hears it with thousands of others on a Sunday morning.  Suddenly you realise that faith is never really private.  It affects how you behave to others, and what they think of you.

Pastor Paul

Pastor Paul

There isn’t time here to go into issues of translations of words in the Bible which the play spends some time discussing but in a nutshell, Pastor Paul reminds us about taking the words of Jesus out of context; and one issue did hit me with almost horrendous resonance for the 21st century world we try to comprehend: we label people into ‘Christians’ and ‘non Christians’ with one group going here after death and one group going there after death (as if we can even have any understanding of what life after death could be – we cannot), and in labelling them we forget that a big part of Christianity is about trying to make a heaven on earth through ‘loving one another’ and embracing the stranger. Pastor Paul alerts us to the potential of the pollution of Christian behaviour when it twists, and uses the example of a group of thieves – they stick together because amongst themselves they don’t keep telling each other how useless or ‘bad’ they are.  The thieves are alike in the way they have gone wrong in life.  Christians are their own worst enemy with phrases such as ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ – if you are in the latter camp, whether you are a thief or whether you just happen to have been born into a culture where Jesus just isn’t around, then yes, you may well feel worthless if you are condemned as ‘unsaved’.  Let us not forget the words of Jesus to the thief that hung on the cross next to him.  Thankfully for him, he went to his death released from the ‘bad’ ghetto that society had put him in.

Pastor Paul, at the start of the play, says he has a powerful urge to communicate but that he finds the distance barrier insurmountable. You realise what he means as the play goes on and it’s shattering, as by admitting his struggle with this part of the Christian faith he loses much of what he holds dear – but at the same time there is the all too real fact that by putting the human race into categories we create distance between ourselves as we simply label ourselves as different. (The Dalai Lama said the same thing, The Big Issue, 28 September 2015.) Either way there is huge loneliness.

Before this turns into a sociological essay, let me turn to the author. Hnath says that when he was younger he wanted to be a preacher but didn’t want to be responsible for other people’s souls so he switched to medicine but then didn’t want to worry about other people’s bodies.  So he became a playwright (full interview on http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/).  Ironically, in writing this play, he has partly become responsible for how people feel about their souls and bodies.  He says of the play ‘…lack of obvious resolution can be uncomfortable, agitating… And maybe something more complex and true becomes visible within the agitation…I think back to a [picture in the] physics class I took [pre-med days].  The picture is of a very tiny particle. The only way you can see the particle is by colliding it with many other particles, from many different angles.’

The Bible presents us with challenging situations resulting in unanswerable questions – and contradictions. It is the particle in collision with others.  But then I’m reminded of the person of Jesus – denying self in order to find Self.  We see him as coming to earth as a man – one of the reasons being to understand what it was to be human.  But he became accessible – living as ‘other’ to be at one with us.  So there is a contradiction right there.  He was an explicit human but implicitly God so who are we to judge that someone is not explicitly Christian? – the fact is, Jesus was not always recognised for the entity he was so for us to be dividing people into who might go to Heaven and  who might go to Hell, seems far beyond us, when we recognise the implications of what this does.  I leave the last words to Hnath:

‘A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible.  The theatre can be that too.’

with cross

Inside Out Theatre


Richard Armitage, currently playing John Proctor in The Crucible at London’s Olc Vic theatre, says he approaches John from the inside.  He says he is not a character who can be ‘put on’ from the outside.  The fact that he draws from within himself is displayed for all to see on stage.  It is a raw and honest portrayal of a man exposed for all the wrong reasons; John Proctor is a beacon of truth in a society ravaged by its own paranoia and eaten up by its abuse of religion.


It is fitting that Armitage is so willing and able to act this part from the inside, as the play’s subject matter is that of a society being attacked from its inner core; the values it thinks it lives by are the very values which are responsible for its destruction.

As with all Arthur Miller’s plays, we should learn from this.

The universality of Les Miserables


I’d been excited about the transfer of Les Miserables from book to stage, and now to film for a while.  I’ve now seen the film and it is the best film I’ve ever seen.  I was so pleased that the reality of the characters and life at the time rang true – it was much more raw and disturbing than I’d expected, and, surprisingly untheatrical.  The characters bring a truth through song that has not been witnessed before – they are not ‘performing’ – they are living with the reality of the story.

I always thought that the reason why Les Miserables has done so well in the world theatres during its 28 year run is because the story addresses emotions and questions that ‘everyman’ asks at some point.  It is set against a severe background of poverty; scenes of which have not gone away in many countries, but even if the poverty aspect was removed, the characters are still like us in their search for forgiveness, purpose, love, recognition and peace.

I could not fault the casting in the film – none of them were sensational – all of them had the vitality and earnestness that was needed for us to relate to the characters.  The character of Javert (the police inspector on the trail of Valjean all his life) is the ambiguous character in the story – Javert believes he knows right from wrong but Valjean is a man who rocks Javert’s boat of once steadfast morals.  Russell Crowe plays Javert with heartbreaking sensitivity who in the end cannot face the fact that his version of goodness has been turned on its head by one who he thought was ‘bad’.  Crowe does brilliantly at showing how Javert grows in doubt:


and the way he sings throughout also matches his outward aim of rightness and smartness but inwardly those defiinitions are challenged.  His voice has a pure, clear tone to it and he struggles not with reaching the high notes in ‘Stars’ – as his character does not struggle in condemning Valjean – until Valjean challenges Javert’s moral position.  There is a beautiful moment in the film between Gavroche and Javert when the line between rich/poor, old/young and experience/inexperience is crossed.  Crowe’s face says it all at that point.


Gavroche, above, captures the innocence and courage of childhood, matched by the leadership and fight for equality by Enjolras, the amazing student leader (Aaron Tweit):


The characters bounce off each other as much on set as off.  The issues that connect the characters are the same issues that connect the actors and audience.  The character who you could say comes off worst is Eponine, played with great understanding by Samantha Barks.


Her loyalty to Marius is known only to her and she is a catalyst to Valjean becoming aware of Cosette’s love for Marius.  I’ve mentioned Valjean but not the actor who plays him – Hugh Jackman is astounding and allows the audience to see his soul.


The gift of singing in the film also allows us to see and hear everything and more about the characters.  It is as much about ‘how’ they say something (in song) as ‘what’ they say.  What they say is so profound that the genre of song allows the audience to absorb and think about what they say much better than if it was simply said.  Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine (above in the pink dress in the picture) would not be as real if it was said.  Her song allows her to go the extra mile.  Tom Hooper has done a magnificent job in directing this film.

One of the most moving moments for fans of Les Miserables like me who’ve known the musical since the beginning, is seeing Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne.  Wilkinson was the original Valjean when the stage musical opened at the Barbican, London, and seeing him return as the Bishop – the character who gives Valjean his life back, is layered with meaning.  From one Valjean to another.  From one generation to another has Victor Hugo’s story lived.  And, if viewers think Wilkinson as the Bishop is meaningful, wait until you get to the end of the film and the weight of the story’s meaning, and the actors who’ve made it live for us, is a revelation.

Valjean (Jackman) sits with the Bishop (Wilkinson) and the famous candlesticks

Valjean (Jackman) sits with the Bishop (Wilkinson) and the famous candlesticks

A Drama group that radiates more than just Theatricality


Radius welcomes people seeking to explore spiritual, social and ethical issues through drama.  As a forum for discussion it encourages a relationship between theatre and faith within contemporary culture and promotes plays that throw light on the human condition.  Radius offers scripts for performance, an assessment service for new plays, a series of study guides, a magazine and a programme of workshops.  Radius is interested in all art forms, whether or not the form articulates a religious theme; and even if it does that theme may not be explicit.

Radius was founded in 1929 and is a registered charity (charity number 214943).  If you are at all interested, do visit the website http://www.radiusdrama.org.uk for The Religious Drama Society of Great Britain, Radius.

Most meaning in life is implicit…Radius helps search for it.

Imagination and the need for Creative Space


The London School of Economics Literary Festival is relatively new – I attended for the first time in 2010 and having heard just how many subject areas were covered in a short space of time I hope to attend the one in February 2012. In this article I plan to review the areas of the two talks I attended, showing how they had a natural relation to drama and possibly belief/spirituality.

‘The Imagined Mind’ was a joint talk between the Institute of Social Psychology and the Department of Anthropology, focusing on the need for imagination, now more than ever before in the digitised world we live in. In the world of Developmental Psychology, research shows that adults have strong emotional reactions to the untrue, e.g., fictional films. Such genres help us to develop our moral judgement.

For this kind of moral development to take place, therefore, we need an imagination: we use fiction to consciously or unconsciously help us make moral decisions and judgements about real life situations. It is through images that we explore other minds – fiction in theatre, film, art and literature provides these images. The author William Fiennes (author of The Snow Geese and The Music Room) explained that in his view there is no need to divide creativity and science. The more specific a story, the more general its message because we all draw different things from it – this, he said, is the transcendent aspect of story, whether the written word or performed word. Likewise, the Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach (author of Bodies and Fat is a Feminist Issue) explains that the analyst has to study her/himself in order to reflect on the patient. One must watch the mind being aware of itself. Every moment in fact is both a real and imagined one because we don’t see things all the same way.
I think this is the same process in theatre and faith.

It could be said that our minds have begun to work like the gadgets we use in society – our minds can be like computers, categorising into groups, and we find ourselves less able to cross-pollinate. We are in fact constrained in the world of ‘free choice’, simply because the creative space between ourselves and the outside world is vanishing. A commercial world has taken over and we face ‘prescriptions’ on how the body is, not what it might be (Dr Sandra Jovchelovitch), and the only medium left which gives us space (and indeed where space is a necessary pre-requisite) is the arts. Being able to interpret gives possibility, even if we discover some uncomfortable truths. As Thomas Dewar says, “Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open.”

‘Theatre of Action?’ was the second talk, given by theatre director John Caird (RSC, National Theatre, musicals such as Les Miserables) and playwright Matt Charman (‘The Observer’). The talk focused on the political nature of theatre in its search for truth. Caird cited the Preface to Bernard Shaw’s ‘Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant’, 1898, as his springboard: “The theatre is growing in importance as a social organ. Bad theatres are as mischievous as bad schools or bad churches; for modern civilization is rapidly multiplying the class to which the theatre is both school and church. Public and private life become daily more theatrical…”

Caird’s belief is that one can’t look to the church or politics for the truth because both always have an axe to grind that isn’t the truth. Good theatre however does not have an agenda so can provide this kind of guidance because it is able to debate with itself about what life could be – a bit like the mind needing to have a conversation with itself in Orbach’s illustration above. Great plays trouble and confuse – they celebrate ambiguity. Charman points out that audiences do not want answers, rather they want an accepted space to ask questions. In Howard Barker’s superb book Arguments for a Theatre, 1989, he takes this further and says: “A braver theatre asks the audience to test the validity of the categories it believes it lives by…”. Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Hare’s Plenty tackle idealism but neither comes loaded with an agenda and instead they allow the audience to step in to the character and make them wonder what they would do. Each member of the audience has to imagine what it might do and this is what makes political theatre.

In an article on the film director Michael Moore (controversial because he offers truth), Andrew O’Hagan writes: “Moore has built a global audience by remembering one of the basic premises of cinema: it was not invented to sedate people (though it very often does) but to inflame them … It’s worth remembering that when he was a child, Michael Moore wanted to be a priest, and as a film-maker, and as a character on film, he is full of evangelical brio. He wants to tell the truth, and part of the joy of his film outings is in watching the efforts…that corporations will go to in trying to shut him up.” (Evening Standard, 26.3.10, pp.34-35).

Similarly, Sebastian Shakespeare in his article If a film is good, must it take pains to be true?, focuses more on the psychology that “art is a lie that makes us realise the truth” (Picasso) and illustrates again the need for imagination and for the audience to do the work – it’s not about the actors and writer (and could be likened also to the church and its congregation: it’s not just about the Bible or priest but what the listener does with the words): “In the end it doesn’t matter whether a film is true or not, it only matters whether you believe it to be true” (Standard, 5.3.10, p.15). Now I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter if the words of the Bible or a sermon are true or not (I happen to think it does matter but this is another article) – I am however talking about the psychological process and saying that being ‘truthful’ is different from the truth.

I’ll explain: The Hurt Locker, for all its Oscar glory, was said to have portrayed EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) troops wrongly. It is however a brilliant film and director Kathryn Bigelow deserved that recognition. In many ways, however, Avatar and District 9 are more truthful as they engage with geo-politics, oppression and exploitation, through the giant prawn figures in the latter and the blue creatures resembling humans in the former, in a metaphorical and allegorical way. The fact is, “the plight of the Na’avi is being replicated all over the world, from the Amazon to Angola”: we know the victims are not blue and flying on huge bird-like creatures, but we also know that we ourselves are destroying the planet and this message is even greater in the film because of the fantastical way it is told to us. It is simply a paradox not only that drama can be more truthful than anything we consider non-drama, but that “our imaginations are the nearest we can get to reality” (Declan Donnellan, The Actor and the Target, 2002).

So long as there is humanity, there will be need for drama, in the many ways it can happen.  After Avatar was released, statistics show that there was an outpouring of depression from people.  This is no coincidence.  People quite literally wanted to be part of that world of Avatar and not the one we all live in.

Bertolt Brecht said ‘Ghosts’ became irrelevant as soon as syphilis became curable. The play is not about syphilis Mr Brecht, and as Samuel Beckett replied, “You are human and there’s no cure for that.”