Dahling, you were divine: religion on the stage

As Stoppard and Shaw plays at the National debate the likelihood of God, Shakespeare’s King John is revived in a church and the St Paul’s Occupy protests are staged, Mark Lawson asks why the Bible is box office

Theatre-goers using online searches this spring risk religious confusion because the same biblical word is the name both of a new play and a new theatrical venue. Temple by Steve Waters opens next month at the Donmar Warehouse in London, with Simon Russell Beale playing a dean of St Paul’s in a fictionalised version of the clash between clergy and anti-capitalist protesters during the occupation of the piazza outside St Paul’s in 2011-12.

And, last week, Temple Church in London became a temporary stage for performances of a new production by director James Dacre of Shakespeare’s King John, in which the English monarch faces inquisition and excommunication by a cardinal sent from Pope Innocent III.

After leaving Temple, the play tours to two more churches – Holy Sepulchre in Northampton and Salisbury Cathedral – and, with Temple the play, is part of what seems to be a wider interest in the dramatic possibilities of religion.

Two recent openings at the National Theatre – a revival of Shaw’s Man and Superman and Tom Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem – feature debates, Shavian and neo-Shavian respectively, about the likelihood of God. And the West End has just staged a revival of Peter Barnes’s 1969 comedy The Ruling Class, with James McAvoy as an English aristocrat who shocks his Anglican, Tory family by announcing that he is the Risen Christ.

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in Man and Superman at the Lyttelton.
Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in Man and Superman at the Lyttelton. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

Religious drama is one of the oldest forms of British theatre, with the incorporation of performance into worship recorded from the time when Christianity was only 500 or so years old. But, in the 12th century, Pope Innocent III, as part of the imposition of orthodoxies that ensnared King John, banished actors from altars. So scriptural scripts went professional or, strictly, into the hands of professional guilds, leading to the tradition of the medieval “mystery” plays, performed by workers and worshippers, written in verse and spoken in local dialect.

Sections of such “cycles” (the plays sometimes lasted several days) survive in numerous English cities. Suppressed during the Reformation, they re-emerged after the second world war and are still performed, although restricted by the quantities of cash and cast required. The Chester cycle will next be seen in 2018, five years after the last playing. And this year’s planned version of the Lichfield texts was abandoned when the producers were refused an Arts Council grant.

The Wintershall Players, a group from Surrey, have created their own modern faith plays and, for the last five Good Fridays, have performed The Passion of Jesus in London’s Trafalgar Square as part of a series of Easter performances (they also do a Nativity at Christmas) in Southern England. The Wintershall projects, in common with those local mystery cycles produced or promoted by churches and cathedrals, are theatrical evangelism. Peter Hutley, who writes the scripts that members of his family produce, started the productions after a conversion to Christianity in the 1950s.Most contemporary drama on religious themes, though, is written from a sceptical, agnostic or even atheistic perspective. Symbolic of this shift, the most celebrated version of the mystery plays was the work of a poet who came to prominence through work that recounts his rebellion against his parents’ faith and church-going. Tony Harrison was commissioned by National Theatre director Bill Bryden to work with a company of actors on a dialect conflation of the York, Wakefield, Chester and Coventry cycles. The Passion was performed on the South Bank terrace on Easter Saturday 1977, with Christ crucified among tourists, and, by 1985, had become a creation-to-doomsday trilogy, memorable for Brian Glover confirming, as many from the county had long believed, that God was a Yorkshireman.

Harrison’s The Mysteries was published by Faber, fittingly because its back-list contained the most enduring modern religious verse-drama: TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935). Eliot’s dramatisation of the murder in 1170 of Archbishop Thomas Becket by the soldiers of King Henry II influenced two subsequent plays by other writers on the same subject: Jean Anouilh’s Becket (1959) and Christopher Fry’s Curtmantle (1962). Fry also translated into English, as The Lark, an Anouilh play about Joan of Arc and so Eliot, Fry and Anouilh can be seen as a loose trinity of 20th-century dramatists drawn to church themes. Eliot, though American, became a committed member of the Church of England, while Fry was booked, in 1968, to address the Conference of Bishops and Provosts of England. In Fry and Eliot, there was briefly a recognisable strand of C of E theatre that, in the 1950s, was matched, from a Roman Catholic perspective, by Graham Greene’s career as a playwright; both The Living Room (1953) and The Potting Shed (1958) turn on the possibility that miracles have occurred in suburbia. Although Greene was ultimately a fundamental doubter in matters of Catholicism, these scripts are, partly because of the holier-than-thou scrutiny of the theatrical censor the Lord Chamberlain, as theologically orthodox as were the mystery plays. The Observer reviewer noted as a weakness that Greene was required to come down on the side of the Vatican.The end of theatrical censorship and the rise of secularism in the late 1960s essentially ended Christian religious drama of a formal kind, a liberation noisily celebrated by the rock musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and the satirical treatment of Jesus in Barnes’s The Ruling Class.

Tessa Peake Jones, Matti Houghton and Rupert Friend in Brimstone and Treacle at the Arcola in 2012.
Tessa Peake Jones, Matti Houghton and Rupert Friend in Brimstone and Treacle at the Arcola in 2012. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

Subsequently, the only English playwright who might formally be considered a religious dramatist was of a highly unorthodox kind. Dennis Potter’s Son of Man (1969), featuring a very earthy Christ, and Brimstone and Treacle (1977), a savage parable in which a stranger who may be Satan “cures” a paraplegic young woman by raping her, were both adapted from controversial TV plays and arose from a faith in which evil was as real a presence as good.

Since that last of the preacher-playwrights, dramatists have tended to approach the subject from a journalistic or political angle. Just as Robert Bolt, in A Man for All Seasons (1960), had been more interested in Sir (to Catholics, Saint) Thomas More as a dissident than a Christian, David Hare, in Racing Demon (1990), employed church politics as a metaphor for broader ideological clashes, through a stand-off between politically radical clergy and a conservative bishop.

Hare was one of a number of theatre writers who, around the turn of the 1990s, examined religious faith from a secular or sceptical perspective. The Secret Rapture (1988) features an evangelical Christian in the US tradition, as does Doug Lucie’s Grace (1992). In the same period, an underrated play by Simon Gray, Hidden Laughter (1990) most resembled a rewrite of a Greene play by an Anglican agnostic, involving a shifty vicar and the possibility of a miracle.

Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary at the Barbican.
Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary at the Barbican. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

And yet, though no playhouse could remain open on the attendance levels that C of E churches achieve most Sundays, the tenets of the creed remain of interest to theatre. Last year, Fiona Shaw and Simon Callow both performed multi-character monologues exploring the story of Jesus from perspectives not featured in the Bible. Shaw’s The Testament of Mary gave the stage to a Mother of Christ who bitterly resented the messianic cult that had developed around her son. A wary Mary was also among the characters voiced by Callow in The Man Jesus. At the same time, a new play by Robin Soans, Perseverance Drive, premiered last year at the Bush theatre in London, explored several generations of a Caribbean pentecostal church, although, pointedly, the character who behaves most charitably and generously is the only humanist among the fierce believers.

Two non-religious writers from the 1960s generation of leftwing dramatists have written powerfully about faith: Howard Brenton (secularised saints in Paul and In Extremis dealing with the love affair between the monk Abelard and the nun Heloise) while David Edgar, whose Written on the Heart (2011) rivetingly portrayed the translation of what became the King James Bible.

Edgar’s play, like Hare’s Racing Demon, was an ecclesiastical procedural, a genre that continues in Temple, which finds broader political parallels in Anglicanism’s divides between liberals and conservatives and makes powerful use of the theatrical elements of worship. Waters’ title alludes to the scriptural scene in which Christ drives the money lenders out of the temple. As leftwing Christians noted at the time of the St Paul’s Occupy protests, the Church of England ended up in the position of driving the anti-money lenders from the sacred place. Temple is an example of how religious drama can still fill the stalls even as the pews empty. Appropriately, it has an epigraph from an 80-year-old predecessor – Murder in the Cathedral.

• Temple is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2H, from 21 May. donmarwarehouse.com. King John is at Holy Sepulchre Church, Northampton, from 24 April. royalandderngate.co.uk.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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