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The play's the thing

August Bank Holiday weekend saw me, for once -- twice, even -- successfully coaxed substantial-ish distances away from home. In part this was due to some uncomfortable lunch-room conversations on the importance of disturbing one's routine in order to develop emotional intelligence. But the prospect of theatre helped; local summer offerings have lacked appeal (I am really, really glad that the ageing cast members of 'The Good Life' are so comfortably provided for by the interminable stream of Alan Ayckbourn at the Bath Theatre Royal -- but I don't feel the need to witness it first-hand). So we were Saturday in Stratford-upon-Avon, for the current RSC production of 'King John', and Monday in York, for the 'York Mystery Plays'.

These two had in common a certain irreverence in their treatment of the original texts. In the case of the first this bothered me very little -- 'King John' is hardly beloved even amongst Shakespeare die-hards, and I found myself uncharacteristically indifferent to the brutalisation of poetry amidst a flamboyant, re-gendered, Tarantino-esque explosion of hedonism, violence and really loud music. On my left, a somewhat reticent Mr. W; on my right, a bemused couple who didn't return after the interval; I, undeterred, decided early-on to quiet the critic in me and go along for the ride. Highlights included: a mid-range hotel-style wedding reception with karaoke and an 'I've Had the Time of My Life' first dance; the dismembered head of the Duke of Austria triumphantly revealed as the contents of a Sainsbury's 'bag for life'; an attempt by John to placate the young Arthur with a Kinder egg; an epic, searing rendition, by the woman playing 'Phillip' Faulconbridge, of the song 'Citizen' by Wye Oak; and an unnervingly effective terpsichorean interpretation of 'dying from poison' to Frankie Valli's 'Beggin'.

It  was far from perfect though -- I mean, more lines were delivered badly than well (I thought), and the determination to 're-read' most of the scenes -- piecemeal -- rendered the characters and the overall plot inevitably inconsistent. (For example, the scene where the marriage of Blanche and the Dauphin is arranged was played to make her look indifferent to him and he look like a weak pawn in the power plays of others -- I expect because the idea of rapid commitment was deemed implausible/unpalatable to a modern audience. However, much of the plot later is driven by her heart-ache and devotion, and his strength and resolve, and so feels confusingly inconsistent).

In the case of the second -- well, I was somewhat more personally affected as the text in question was the Bible. A big swathe of it, in fact: the York Mystery Plays date back to medieval times when the various City Guilds would each present a different part of the whole (as befitted their trade -- for example, the carpenters might take on Noah's Ark, the goldsmiths the Visit of the Magi, the bakers the Last Supper). It was a fascinating and vibrant affair: staged outdoors (sheltered, fortunately, as it rained) in the Museum Gardens -- the set interrupted by various bits of ruined Abbey and/or Roman wall (as is delightfully characteristic of York); lots of beautiful choral music and highly ambitious movable staging (the Ark made me particularly nervous, as it came on in pieces and was lashed somewhat makeshift together with luggage straps before being boarded by no fewer than 8 cast members and paraded around in a sea (flood, rather) of bobbing umbrellas).

But, I (predictably) found myself tensing up frequently when it came to their treatment of the original material. It is hard to let historical inaccuracies pass when you believe the reality to be of such relevance and significance (I'm fairly sure that John wasn't baptising "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" [1], and that Mary Magdalene was unlikely to have explicitly prayed to a Trinitarian God [2]). There was some problematic theology bouncing about (large sections such as the "Fall of Lucifer" (Isaiah 14:12-15Luke 10:18) and the "Ministering to the Souls in Captivity" (1 Peter 3:19-20) drew more from the extrapolations of the medieval church than from the Bible, whose support is sparse on such matters). And the relaxed approach to dialogue and events did not sit comfortably with me (e.g. Matthew 8:20 -- "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" -- was re-appropriated as spoken by Jesus on the cross and given a whole different interpretation in the meantime).

What I struggled with most, I think, was the portrayal of God and the impression it left about what He is like. I mean, as soon as you've got a human guy on the stage strutting about and 'creating' the earth and chatting to the angels and commanding worship and inflicting punishment...well, you're inevitably gonna be like 'I don't think so, buddy'. The worst case of this, for me, was the indication that the creation of mankind was some sort of Divine afterthought once His heavenly creatures had rebelled and refused to worship Him as they ought. Petulant, needy, capricious -- not the sort of God I'd be eager to know or worship, but more to the point, nothing like the God I think I do know and (endeavour to) worship. Fact is you can't portray God -- you just can't do it. In the attempt to do so one reads back into His perfect, holy character all sorts of flawed, human distortions: power becomes manipulative; justice appears petty and disproportionate; love is tainted with neediness, and breeds resentment when not requited. Such was the 'God' the play ended up with. But really, all this says nothing about what He is like and everything about what we are like.

Actually, according to the Bible there was one man who was able to show us what God is like, because (to sum up whole complex swathes of theology in two words), he was God Incarnate...
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
[...] And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known. (John 1:15, 14-18)
The play's characterisation of Jesus was slightly less nail-clenchingly aggravating than that of God the Father. At least the actor (who played both) had, to his advantage, rather more in common with the former by virtue of his humanity -- and all the needs, experiences and emotions that go along with that. In fact, that's kinda the point of the Incarnation -- or at least, a part of the point. As the writer of Hebrews explains: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15) This at least gave the actor something to draw on. But yet, that 'without sin' be honest, a fair tranche of human imperfection was creeping in to the performance -- arrogance, self-satisfaction, self-righteousness. You couldn't exactly have mistaken him for the real deal.

So all in all, the Mystery Plays did a nice job of entertaining and relating some interesting bits of narrative in creative ways. But it did not deliver on what I would consider to be the telos (purpose) of the Bible -- to introduce us to God and awaken us to the awesome possibility of relationship with Him. I guess we inevitably evaluate a thing against what we perceive to be its telos. I was quite happy to approach King John as pure, frivolous entertainment, and enjoyed it very much on those terms. (Ben ascribed a somewhat 'higher' telos to the original play and so enjoyed this particular rendition less). But the Mystery Plays left me half wanting to take the stage and add an impassioned addendum -- clarify for the dispersing audience what it's really all about [3]. Take Paul's bold, confident and reality-shaking words to the Colossians, for example [4]:
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1:15-23)

[1] The instruction by Jesus to his disciples to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit", recorded at the end of Matthew (28:18-20), is, I think, a new commandment, a different baptism to John's baptism (see, maybe, Luke 3:15-16), and also (so far as I understand it) would not have immediately been understood as implying a Trinitarian theology.

[2] The doctrine of the Trinity as carefully considered by Christian theologians emerges from a holistic understanding of the Bible -- viewing the Old Testament in context of the New -- but was certainly not to be found in the vocabulary of first century Jews, even those who followed Jesus, at least not before the resurrection.

[3] In our church, you can tell (or rather, I've decided I can tell) when the person leading the service doesn't quite agree with what the speaker said, cos they sneak an addendum into the closing prayer...

[4] The reason, incidentally, I like putting big chunks of the Bible in what I write is cos I know and trust it to say it better than I ever could. If anyone does ever read this blog, I'd far rather they went away knowing, and wanting to know, more about what the Bible has to say, than knowing or wanting to know more about what I have to say.