Belief walks in from the wings.

Written for the Church Times

In the spotlight: Messianic John (Trystan Gravelle), centre, with Stephen (Danny Webb) and Ruth (Geral­dine James) in the National Theatre production of 13  NATIONAL THEATRE/MARC BRENNER

“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.

Interpreting faith: right, left to right: William Tyndale (Stephen Boxer) and Lancelot Andrewes (Oliver Forde Davies) wrestle with the Bible in Written on the Heart

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.

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Response to Earthquakes In London

Earthquakes In London is a sprawling mess that parades its wears like a fashion show but lacks heart.

Whilst I need to preface this response as one that’s been taken from a preview performance, I can’t get away from the thought that Earthquake’s In London is a mess.  By attempting to tackle apocalyptic environmental and societal issues whilst reclining uncomfortably in a dysfunctional family saga Mike Bartlett seems to have hit some massive stumbling blocks.

The fragmentary structure certainly gives a sense of fast car urban existence but with characters coming in and out of focus like bored commuters, its hard to care about any of it or them.

We follow three daughters all careering around London trying to make sense out of their jumbled lives as both their environment and time itself disintegrates around them.  It’s a massive departure for Bartlett, known for doing pared down, razor sharp indictments of modern life with a minimum amount of actors.  Here he turns his eye to generational responsibility.  It’s a promising and meaty conflict but one that gets lost in the whirl of a confusing narrative structure that attempts to hurtle in all directions at once without having tied itself to anything solid from which to fly.

And whilst you have to admire its epic ambitions, Earthquakes boasts a cast of 17 taking on 50 roles and incorporates the ambitious stylings of Enron director Rupert Goold, you can’t help but feel it’s actually a very slight piece of work.   It’s all too easy to get fed up of the same old naturalistic dross and ‘economic’ castings that so suit our current financial predicament but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and become nothing but spectacle either.

Because at its heart, Earthquakes In London seems so concerned to not lecture its audience with its central theme that it has avoided having one at all.  At 3 hours long it’s tiring not exhilarating.  I hate to sound boring but the whole thing could have benefited from someone cutting through all the theatrical bullshit and saying something much simpler, but with some actual weight behind it.

It’s a great first draft (and I’m not intending to patronize when I write this), there are some moments of spine chilling poetic beauty in Bartlett’s dialogue and Goold’s direction delivers the expected visual punch.  But whilst Bartlett has said ‘I wanted to see whether you could throw everything at it and still maintain a structure and coherence.’ I think on this occasion the answer has to be that he couldn’t.