Tag Archives: Jesus

The Dangers of Labelling

Standard

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

Advertisements

Boyle’s Brilliance

Standard

I think Danny Boyle at the Opening Ceremony created a new genre – called ‘Epicality’.  He managed to show the UK with its authenticity and detail, on an epic scale.  The imagery will stay with me for a long time.

I was thrilled that he used theatre and performance as the way to communicate.  The Victorian pioneer Brunel was played by Kenneth Branagh, who in the spirit of anachronism, recited the great speech of Caliban’s from The Tempest which talks of dreams:

And it was in the spirit of dreams and imagination that Boyle got us to the truth of the event.  In the country scenes where small groups of people ‘acted out’ how life used to be, we got to know ourselves again as a nation – where we’ve been, where we are going.

The Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Martin Roth, commented that Boyle needs to be congratulated on his risk taking because risk taking is a venture into the unknown.  It is often the unknown that rewards and that takes us into a more truthful realm than the so-called known.

Akram Khan, who had a powerful dance slot during the ceremony, talks about the stage as a place for unmasking.  It is a place to be truthful, to be oneself (I note the winner of ITV’s ‘Superstar’, Ben Forster, was told by Andrew Lloyd Webber that he was a great actor but had the rare talent of being himself at the same time – a quality needed I think to make the stage, especially as the character of Jesus).

Akram Khan and his dancers

The Movement Director of the Ceremony, Tony Sedgwick, said to the volunteers ‘You must never show what you are doing, you must just BE it.’  And I think that goes for the whole event – volunteers from all walks of life came out to showcase the UK – through the genre of performance.  And that genre gave them permission to take risks which made for a very real and meaningful event.  It started the journey for all the sports women and men taking part – to take risks and be truly who you can be.

Danny Boyle should be saluted as ‘going for gold’ for the human spirit.

 

Film Review: The Gospel of Us

Standard

In April 2011, over three days beginning on Good Friday, the town of Port Talbot in South Wales came together to stage The Passion through the streets with Michael Sheen as their Jesus-like figure.  A year later, those three days of drama have been turned into a two hour film.  The locals became the cast, crew and heroes of it and for this reason the film never feels ‘acted’ but instead harrowingly and stunningly real.  It is hard for me to describe the film as I would not do its uniqueness justice – I have never seen anything quite like it.  The editing style itself will stay with me before I can even think about Sheen’s magnetic presence as ‘The Teacher’ who, much like the Jesus of the gospels, attracts and repels the crowd in equal measure.

The setting of The Passion revolves around the fictional story of a battle that Port Talbot is fighting.  Authoritarian forces have taken over and a ruthless, sinister corporation is in control, called ICU.  They are after the town’s resources and a company man clashes with a suicide bomber on the beach.  What could have been a bloody massacre is saved by a softly spoken loner who tells us later that he is here ‘to listen’ (The Teacher).  He is a local man, who disappeared 40 days earlier, who has lost his memory.  ICU seek to get rid of him since he is a trouble maker.  The biblical parallels are at this point clear – certain figures are representative of the names we associate with the Easter story.

The authority

At the screening I went to, Director Dave McKean and writer (of the book it was based on) Owen Sheers were present for a Q&A session post show, which offered great insight into the making of the film and how the project began via National Theatre Wales.  Sheen, whose home town is Port Talbot, had wanted to do a secular response to The Passion – secular maybe, but the journey one is taken on through the film takes one into a sphere that is not of the everyday and yet the film is for everyman.  The secular symbolism in the film is so profound, such as the sharing of Sheen’s sandwiches with some people who have started to follow him, and the conversation with his earthly dad, a roofer, about the value of a broken slate, is so striking, it made me feel that once I walked outside the cinema I would quite easily find the divine in just about anything.  The film is an achievement in film making, acting and meaning, but Christian viewers may find it even more faith affirming (though it does not set out to do this) because of what it does implicitly – I will take time to explain this.

At one level, the film is an example of the omnipresence of technology in our lives and how this has had both a disturbing and creatively good impact on our lives.  McKean didn’t anticipate the intrusion of phones of the ‘crowd’ in his face whilst he was trying to film and the filming of people filming with their phones adds a huge dynamic to the film because it then becomes a mirror in which society can look at itself.  It is not a film about ‘how Port Talbot staged The Passion’ – it is a record of the three days of a man on a journey, unrehearsed.  It overwhelms Sheen at one point – again, this is all recorded and shown in the film, who asks a man in the crowd why he is filming him on his phone (the man is being filmed filming – if that makes sense) and the man replies because he wants to be here.  Sheen replies, as Sheen, ‘then be here’; ‘be here with me’.  What may have been seen as intrusive (a mobile phone) actually becomes a catalyst for the theme of the film and of Easter – be here, be present.   The phone is a vehicle for asking us, are we present in this world to witness what is happening – do we relate to each other in a society of virtual reality where you can have a relationship involving no relating (the internet and phone)?  How brilliant the film is in using technology to record the last three days of this man’s life but at the same time using the very vehicle that has made the film what it is, to turn the phenomenon of technology on its head: beware of who and what your master is when looking for meaning in life.

I hope I am enticing you to see this film.  It is truly modern and yet timeless (like the gospels whether you are believer or not) because it is a story and a story told with all the truth of human emotion.  It is also timeless because of its take on who The Teacher is.  This you begin to see at the end of the film through a sequence of shots of Michael Sheen which he shot himself, whilst in isolation.  They indicate isolation, brokenness and loneliness – I can’t say more for fear of spoiling the film, but all human life is here.  And it is these themes that are continual through the film linked through the one main theme of memory.  Sheen collects a core group of followers in the lead up to the Crucifixion who he ‘rescues’ – the first one in a very obvious way in the shape of a suicide bomber.  All, like him, are struggling with some element of their past, often because they can’t remember or work out what went wrong – the film at these points – via each one’s story, is fractured and disturbing with dream-like sequences.  The power of the film’s editing at these moments reflects the state of the characters’ minds so you’re not only seeing the power of the locals’ acting but the structure of the film illustrates this (McKean has a background in graphic design, illustration, sculpture and music and this is all evident by the way he’s made the film).  Again, the deeper meaning is always there, Sheen says at one social gathering, to his lost yet found friends, ‘we find ourselves in each other’.  It is through pain (both physical pain in mind and body in the here and now, and painful memories) that peace, understanding and often resolution can be found.

The importance of the play on words ‘ICU’ become clear – all those who follow Him, see him.  He says to the suicide bomber ‘I see you’ – you are found because you have been seen and through being seen, you see this Jesus-like figure and ultimately see yourself.  The underlying spiritual truths are heartbreakingly moving.

For me, it is not a ‘made’ film – it is one that evolves as the viewer’s response grows through it.  Port Talbot was clearly sucked into the world of the play and if the crew just set out to give a secular response they have achieved a lot more.  This is most evident in the Crucifixion when the crowd become ‘the mob’ just by virtue of wanting to see Sheen and at those moments in the film, Owen Sheers spoke of the strange moral vacuum – Sheen is violently beaten, away from the crowds but the crowd watch on big screens – people are still filming the whole event on their phones which can be seen as disgusting and when this is continued at the actual Crucifixion you feel it is then simply wrong, and yet the artistic effect of the Dali-like Christ hanging above Port Talbot with the thousands of camera phones flashing looks like stardust, and the blood and screaming of the event has transpired into a mystical spectacle.

The longer the film stays in my mind, the more metaphors and truths about life walk into my mind.  Port Talbot is in a battle for its life as the film opens, a battle for its identity – it is a town scarred by the M4 motorway – this is its story, its ‘mark’, or a blot on the landscape (it appears in one of the dream sequences as ‘the monster with stone legs’), and the town is desperate to ‘reremember’ itself.  To say The Teacher takes on the scars of the motorway in his bearing of another kind of monster (the cross) is not taking the symbolism too far, because human kind essentially looks for identity and if this is being taken away, people feel desperate and perform actions which don’t make sense.  It is not for nothing that the words ‘I Am’ are uttered in the film, the full meaning of them and the context in which they were said continues to resonate days after viewing the film.