Written for the Church Times
“I HAVE always thought that the theatre is a kind of surrogate religion,” The Guardian’s longest-standing theatre critic, Michael Billington, says. “It has its disciples and its adherents.” He’s laughing, but we both know that there is some truth in this.
Western theatre is rooted in the miracle and morality plays of the 13th century; so religion and the stage have long been entwined. Billington, perhaps one of theatre’s most devoted disciples, is not alone in seeing parallels between the rituals and roles of church and theatre.
For the new incoming artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, in Covent Garden, London, Josie Rourke, her love of theatre was fuelled by her Roman Catholic upbringing. “[It] is born from hours and hours spent in church. . . I read in church as a child, and the act of reading out loud and listening to others read out loud profoundly influenced me.” Her journey into storytelling began with perhaps the greatest story of all, that in the Bible.
This influence works both ways; some find that their love of theatre develops into an appreciation of the rites of faith. This was certainly the case for my father, who started out training as a theatre director and ended up as the Bishop of Hertford.
In the 1970s, he was not alone in moving from the theatre to religion. There was a palpable shift towards spirituality within many avant-garde practitioners.
The revolutionary Polish theatre-director Jerzy Grotowski believed that the act of communion between an actor and an audience member could take us beneath our superficial reactions to our inner selves. But, after deep research, even those distinctions became unnecessary, until, for him, it was just about people’s meeting. “I am not interested in theatre any more, only in what I can do leaving theatre behind,” he said.
One of the greatest names in British theatre, Peter Brook, was profoundly affected by the ideas on movement and proportion developed by the Russian-Armenian spiritual teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Brook was eventually to become one of his disciples.
But, in the wake of two decades of rampant materialism, where is the position of spirituality on stage today? During the “in-yer-face” movement of the 1990s, faith took a back seat for British playwrights, who seemed more concerned with the tensions and traumas of urban squalor. Sex and politics played a large part in works that pushed social niceties to their limit, but religion was more or less absent in what appeared to be an aggressively secular art form.
FAST-forward to 2011, and the picture looks distinctly different. In the past year alone, we have seen a number of plays, filling the auditoriums of some of the biggest theatres in Britain, which have explored religion, belief, and spirituality.
Michael Sheen’s The Passion even took over the town of Port Talbot for a weekend (News, 28 April). This three-day piece of street theatre charted Jesus’s final journey over the Easter weekend, using the actor’s Welsh hometown as the stage. Considering that, only a few years ago, Billington was complaining that, since David Hare’s 1990 play Racing Demon (revived again last year), “Religion rarely surfaces in modern drama,” that is quite a leap.
The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible was a significant contributing factor to this religious revival. Our Christian text has been placed centre-stage, becoming a focal point for believers and atheists alike. At the Bush Theatre, 66 Books (Arts, 21 October) encouraged contemporary responses to each book of the Bible — some more religious than others. The Globe turned the Good Book into a “good read” by vocalising the most famous stories of our time.
At Stratford-upon-Avon, David Edgar explored the part played by William Tyndale in the translation and distribution of these parables throughout Europe, in Written on the Heart (Feature, 21 October). As the theatre critic Henry Hitchings wrote: “Even in an age when Christian faith is faltering, the language of the 1611 King James Bible is an important strand running through everyday English.”
Hitchings’s point is significant, because many of these projects were not faith-based. Instead, they were explorations of the Bible as a cultural artefact.
As the outgoing artistic director of the Bush Theatre, Rourke oversaw 66 Books, and she is clear that the conception of this epic endeavour did not have faith at its centre. Instead, she saw the project as a way of staging a text that was written to be spoken — a text that was “a prism to look at enormous things — some of which are faith and redemption, but some of which are family; it was a great canvas for writers to explore”.
ALONGSIDE this concrete, almost secular, celebration, however, there is something else — another thread within this resurgence of faith, with a less formalised but more spiritual search at its heart. Ben Power is associate director at the National Theatre, and dramaturg on successful shows with other companies, such as Enron and A Disappearing Number.
He feels that there is a wave of new plays “responding to something a bit broader than that anniversary; they are somehow responding to some sort of absence or perceived absence on behalf of those writers, in secular society”.
It is hard not to be aware of the “absence” to which he refers. After 9/11, and in the midst of a financial apocalypse, people may be disappointed in the gods that we were told were sacred. Capitalism and consumerism have proven to be false idols. As our individualistic world crumbles around us, perhaps people are searching for faith in their stories once more, and searching for alternatives.
TWO writers who shout the loudest from among the rubble are Mike Bartlett and Alexi Kaye Campbell. Bartlett’s epic play 13 is currently running at the National Theatre, while Campbell’s The Faith Machine (Arts, 23 September) caused a ruckus at that historic temple of iconoclasm, the Royal Court.
13 is a charged examination of religious belief in the 21st century, featuring a latter-day messiah, and a government plotting to declare war on Iran — and even mentions an Alpha course. It is a vast piece that throws up more questions than it could ever hope to answer. For Bartlett, it was both a “state of the nation” story, which reflected the modern landscape, but also a series of questions about “the play between modern morals and traditional morals”.
This dialogue between modern and traditional attitudes to belief also runs strongly through The Faith Machine. Campbell’s story explores the relationship between faith, capitalism, and love, as represented in the increasingly strained relationship between an idealistic girlfriend, her boyfriend, who is in advertising, and her father, a retired bishop, who has disowned his religion.
As with 13, The Faith Machine interrogates our modern need for belief, mixed with our suspicion of those religious institutions that we feel have not provided the answers. Billington wrote in his review: “Campbell’s play . . . is saying something important: that individualism is insufficient, that mankind lives by myths and stories, and that we all need some kind of faith, even if we can no longer subscribe to the dogmas of organised religion.”
THIS tension between our search for faith and our refusal to find it in traditional religion is one which the Archbishop of Canterbury has clearly noticed. While he agrees that there has been a resurgence of interest in faith in society, he feels that “it’s not necessarily church-related faith, [although] people are confronting big questions and asking some quite basic questions around values.”
For Dr Williams, Campbell’s play showed that there is a place for both new and old forms of faith in our lives, as we stumble towards answers. When he read The Faith Machine, he was deeply moved, he said, by “the way in which [Sophie], who had been shaped by a very overt and radical faith growing up, in her father, still recognises that she has a radical energy, and acknowledges that she wouldn’t have got that radical energy if there wasn’t someone presenting that more traditional energy, too.”
As an art form that translates the individual experience into a communal one, perhaps it is fitting that the theatre should be the home of these expansive questions. There is a sense in which some churches encourage resolution, while theatres thrive on conflict and the tensions that come from the unanswerable. This may be one of their biggest differences. But, in the act of pulling an audience or congregation together, they are bound inexorably.
“A play is the nearest thing, I suppose, to a service; in a way, we all gather in the same place, we hope for some kind of communal experience,” Billington says. “It’s interesting [this resurgence] is happening in theatre, I’m not aware of it happening on television, I’m not aware of it happening in the cinema.”
IN A world where many people spend the greater part of their time on individual media devices and online social networks, this ability to provide communal experiences is becoming increasingly important.
Power agrees. “That it is a public exploration is really crucial, I think . . . Publicly going through that questioning, allowing an audience to explore those things in a collective experience does feel really important at the moment.”
As one of the core team at the National Theatre’s Studio, Power is closely involved in the new writing projects that are developed there. Although he does not believe that anyone has an agenda to push — and that the National Theatre certainly doesn’t — he feels that this is a movement that will continue.
“At the moment, more and more people are interested in making theatre that asks some fairly fundamental questions about what it means to have, or not have, these kinds of belief structures in your life. And it feels like the momentum is definitely going to increase, and that the number of people being interested in exploring that will increase.”
At the start of 2012, it seems that this spiritual enquiry is going to stay as the big issue in the theatre. Taking us into January, Joe Penhall’s Haunted Child, a psychologically disturbing look at extremist religious belief, is currently keeping faith at the top of the Royal Court’s agenda. But it is not all intimate three-handers; the Battersea Arts Centre’s epic collaboration with WildWorks, BABEL, in May, promises to be an outdoor spectacle to rival The Passion. After the coming together of a scattered people as they attempt to create a new Utopian city, and featuring more than 500 performers, BABEL promises to be one of the most talked-about theatrical events of 2012.
The RSC returns to theological themes in February. Helen Edmundson — who adapted Coram Boy for the National, and Swallows and Amazons, currently in the West End — has written a new play, The Heresy of Love. It is based on the extraordinary life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a poet, nun, and a Baroque literary figure of Mexico.
“The play imagines a particular time in her life — a time of crisis,” Emundson says. “A crisis which throws up questions about, among other things, the role of women in the Church, and about what happens when we move away from organised religion, and try to create a form of faith which suits the way we want to live.”
Billington hopes that such big questions will continue to bleed on to our stages, and so does Dr Williams: “[I’m] very enthusiastic about faith in the theatre. I think theatre is a kind of liturgical event; it’s one of those few experiences where we have a big important experience together.”
Having himself contributed a play to 66 Books — he wrote a short play about the resurrection in St John’s Gospel — the Archbishop has had first-hand experience of “trying to find a way from the language of public faith and traditional faith into one person’s experience”.
This is a concern that seems to be at the heart of many playwrights today. While they may not have the answers, the search for some form belief is driving these writers to explore personal journeys of faith on public stages. In doing so, they are vocalising the unease of an increasingly disenchanted and questioning nation, and placing themselves firmly within theatre and religion’s long legacy.