Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We are all made in the image of the God we choose to serve."

Blaise Pascal

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Recycled Earth Ball

In keeping with our ecological theme for our Harvest weekend at Belfast South Methodist, including a very successful mini-conference/conversation yesterday entitled "Enough is Plenty" organised in association with South Belfast Friends Meeting, I have "recycled" a piece I posted some years ago, a screen shot of an animation based on Olaf Skarsholt's prose-poem “Earth Ball.”


Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Psalm (?) for Sunday

The following is the responsive psalm we used to begin our 11am service today - although of course it isn't a Psalm at all but an adaptation of words from Deuteronomy.

Listen, O heavens, and I will speak;
hear, O earth, the words of our mouths.
Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew,
May they be like showers on new grass, 
like abundant rain on tender plants.
I will proclaim the name of the Lord.
Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
upright and just is he.
From Deuteronomy 32:1-4


Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Suitable Saint for 2016?

I've never seen a stage production of Shaw's St. Joan before, I did a dramatised reading of it when I was 19 at about 2 o'clock in the morning as part of a sponsored play reading... and I have seen Otto Preminger/Graham Greene's somewhat bloodless film many years ago (probably on a rainy Saturday afternoon when there was no decent sport on Grandstand and it was showing on BBC2)... As such I was not awake to the powerful resonances that this play has for the world in which we now live... But the production in Belfast's Lyric which I saw last night on it's first night brings them alive...
The director Jimmy Fay and adaptor Philip O'Sullivan have radically cut the play from a dramatis personnae of around 22 to one that could be handled by a cast of 7... However, they largely kept the structure and language of Shaw's play, choosing not to do it as an ensemble/agitprop piece a la the recent National Production, but they did loose the epilogue with its dream sequence (which the film confusinging turns into a prologue)... preferring to end with Warwick's line in the previous scene, which I personally think was a good call (though I won't spoil it for those who don't know the play)... The last scene they do perform is problematic enough... and sadly I don't think they entirely cracked it, which made for a weak end to a good production... However, I am not entirely sure how you could possibly make the epilogue work for a modern theatre audience... Did anyone reading this see the National Production? Review's seem to suggest they took the scissors to it too... How did it work?
There are points in the play where Shaw is at his didactic best/worst depending on how you look at it... and he is totally anachronistic (probably knowingly and unashamedly so) at times... Especially when it comes to the Protestant/Catholic debate, which is perhaps exacerbated by the excising in this script of the references to Hus and Wycliffe that were in the original... but that is me as a church history buff being pedantic... to most audience members it won't make a difference... And should in no way be taken as me being negative about what was a really worthwhile production. Some of the performances were superb (especially Lisa Dwyer Hogg as Joan and Tony Flynn as Warwick... and the best performance out of Alan McKee that I've yet seen), although some of the diction was poor. The award winning design and staging, set in an office, was appropriately jarring (I'll come back to that), though as often is the caase it didn't fully follow through on the iconic promotional designs. It was a shame it was only 3/4 full last night, and hope it gets the audiences it deserves for the rest of the run...
But let me come back to the play itself, which as I said, I have never properly seen before, and realised the contemporary resonances on my previous reading... It hadn't connected with me that it was written, not only in the light of Joan's 1920 elevation to sainthood, but the First World War, and the events of the 1916 Easter Rising, with Pearse's commitment to blood sacrifice and warrior-spirituality, and all that flowed from it... And so at the heart of this decade of centenaries it raises important questions about nationalism and imperialism, feminism (even though Shaw wouldn't have recognised the term) and male-chauvenism, individualistic protestantism and institutional catholicism, as well as the whole issue of the use of violence in pursuit of a supposedly righteous cause, both on a military level and a judicial one... The dynamic between church and state is perhaps more pertinent than when Shaw wrote this... And the reflections on the extremes of Islam, or as Shaw refers to it as Mahommedenism are chillingly prophetic... Is Joan, driven by her personal conviction to wage ruthless war (unmeliorated by the laws of chivalry) really the tragic heroine here? Or was she a 15th century Samantha Lewthwaite? Is she a suitable saint for 2016? 
Shaw's scepticism about faith is dwarfed by his understandable cynicsm about the church and institutional religion... An it is hard to gainsay when you look at the history of Christendom in its many institutional forms, from way before Joan, cosying up to the Empire under Constantine, calling for crusades, condemning Joan and then canonising her, blessing "big battalions" and small on both sides in mutiple wars, endorsing many despots as it suited them, creating the Inquisition, piggybacking on colonialism, right down to today and some of the dubious political alliances made the world over, not least the recent "evangelical" leaders' lauding "the Donald." However, Christendom is dead (or at best on life support) and the setting of this production, in an office with soaring glass windows and sharp suits, centuries away from the historic gothic castles, cathedrals and suits of armour we might expect... Because today the power lies not with church or state but in multi-national companies... That was why one of the key targets of Al-Qaeda 15 years ago today was the World Trade Centre... As potent a target as Orleans was for Joan nearly 6 centuries ago... I doubt that those who committed that atrocity will be lauded by many in the west in centuries to come in the way that Joan now is... She may have sought to avoid her own martyrdom, but she led many to their deaths, and advocated a ruthlessness in the pursuit of her "righteous" cause, in much the same way that those behind militant Islam (or the western response to such) do today. 
I haven't yet seen or heard any professional reviews of this, but this decidedly unprofessional reviewer thinks you should go see it if you have the chance... And  see if you think she is a suitable saint for 2016...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Psalm for Sunday: Sing joyfully to the Lord

Its been a while since I posted one of these, but then again it's been a while since I posted anything at all, so here goes:

Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you his people;
Let his righteous people praise him as they should.
Praise the Lord with all the instruments you can muster.
Sing to him new songs and use all your skills to honour him.
For the Word of the Lord is trustworthy and true;
He is faithful in all he says and does.
The Lord loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full to overflowing with his unfailing love.
from Psalm 33: 1-5


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Memories and Myths of the Somme

I had one of those incidents this week of remembering something that didn't happen. Don't fear, I haven't developed false memory syndrome, although I am sure we have all experienced a variety of that where an event when we were young has been talked about so vividly that we are convinced that we actually remember it ourselves even though it is unlikely (or perhaps even impossible as we weren't actually there)...
No, in this instance I was convinced that I had been to the previous production of the Lyric's "Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme" only to find out subsequently that I couldn't possibly have been as I wasn't in the country at the time! However, I know I DID see a production of it (and I don't think it was the Abbey's original production in Dublin) before early 1987. I also know I didn't see it alone, as I was never sad enough to go to the theatre on my own, so if there is anyone out there who accompanied me to a production of this sometime in the mid 1980's please contact me so that I can fill in the gaps in my Swiss-cheese memory.
Anyway, all of that is a very long prologue to saying that I was at the Lyric Theatre last night for their timely revival (in conjuntion with Dublin's Abbey and others) of this challenging play, where the tormented memories of sculptor Ken Pyper are played out before us, by 8 sons of different parts of Ulster. It was, on the whole, a better production than the earlier one I saw (whatever production that was and wherever I saw it). The emotional power was profound, tying cast and audience together. 
For the second time in a week I had tears in my eyes at the sight of young men in the uniform ot the 36th Ulster Division... The previous time was watching the start of the Belfast County Orange Parade on the 12th July where they had a group of young men in uniforms marching along with wooden rifles on their shoulders, reminding those watching that many of those who joined up with the 36th Ulster Division were members of the Orange Order, who, en masse had, in turn, signed the Ulster Covenant, joined the UVF and subsequently went to serve in France. There was a certain irony in the the inclusion of this in the parade this year as, I believe (and in this I remain to be corrected, but my Dad told me, and on all things Orange he is my primary authority) they cancelled the Belfast parade on the 12th July 1916 out of respect for those who had died on the Somme. 
I unfortunately saw few of the official Somme Commemorations on the 1st July (and in Dublin a few days later) because of pastoral commitments, but the little bits I did see seemed to be moving and solemn, dealing lightly with the imperialism and militarism that had primed the fuse for that conflagration, of which the Somme seemed the epitome. But if we are to avoid repeating the errors of previous generations we need to not only commemorate the dead sensitively, but critique the context that led to their deaths. Yet dry academic debate is not the way to do it, because such debates rarely reach the parts of society that produce the foot soldiers in conflicts, be that conflict on the Somme, Iraq or the Shankill and Springfield Roads.
Plays such as "Observe the Sons of Ulster" have a role in such a critique, although a limited one given the reluctance of many in working class unionism to engage with theatre (especially a theatre in leafy BT9!). It was good to see Dan Gordon direct a production of it with Young Offenders a number of years ago, and if we had a Culture minister who was prepared to invest in the arts beyond instruments for marching bands, perhaps the time is right for a series of community workshops around the play, exploring the myths and reality of the battle and all that it represents 100 years on. I know there have been many other events run at a local and regional level, but I believe that many issues raised by this play air things that are rarely touched on in working class unionism.
There are many myths around the Battle of the Somme, and the role of the 36th Ulster Division in it... some of them with greater grounding in reality than others, and some of them included in the play, including the wearing of Orange sashes and collarettes as the troops went over the top, whilst the whole Battle has become a potent foundation myth of NI. There is no doubt that historically the service and sacrifice of the 36th Ulster Division was used as an IOU by the political leaders of Unionism (just as Redmond believed that the service of the IVF could be used to further the cause of Home Rule) a But were the soldiers of the ground aware of the role they would subsequently play in the politics of the subsequent 100 years? One of the most haunting aspects of the play is the characters growing awareness that they were unlikely to come back. We have no real way of assessing whether McGuinness' play is an accurate reflection of the attitudes of the soldiers on the eve of that event... Even if there where survivors still to ask, their subseqent life experiences and the reflections of others on this most criticised of wars (with the possible exception of the more recent Iraq debacle) and most mythic of battles in the Northern Irish psyche would inevitably have altered their own memories. Diary entries may give us a better insight, but even then people are not always honest with themselves in putting things on paper. Certainly few at the would have committed to paper the desires that are portrayed in the Pyper/Craig relationship in the play. The shock value of this is undoubtedly less potent than it was 30 years ago (although I suspect that, ironically, it has lost less of its power in Ulster than it has in the rest of the UK or Ireland) but statistics suggest that the desire (if not the consumation) would not have been unlikely within the 36th Ulster Division... But memories of any real same-sex relationships are unlikely to be recorded... and so in that we rely on the work of playwrights to prompt us to remembering the unremembered. 
Which is why, when it came to remembering the centenary of the 1st July in our worship at Belfast South Methodist 2 days later, I focussed, not on the 36th Ulster Division, but, given that we were still in the midst of the Euros, the actions of Captain Billy Nevill of the 8th East Surrey Regiment, who, when the whistle blew at 7.30 am, kicked one of two footballs out into no-man's land. On it he had painted ‘The Great European Cup-Tie Final. East Surreys v Bavarians. Kick off at zero.’ He and his men followed it. They were one of the few regiments to take their objective that day… But not without the death of Captain Nevill, his second in command and many others in the regiment. The football was retrieved from the German barbed wire and retained as a trophy by the regiment.
The 8th East Surrey Regiment was only one of many other units who, together with the 36th Ulster Division, were slaughtered on that day, and for months afterwards on the fields of the Somme. 
And whilst we remember those Sons of Ulster who marched towards the Somme, it is important to remember the sons of Surrey and further afield... Those who didn't wear an Orange collarette as well as those who did... Those who fought for Ulster and for Ireland... Those who were gay (but who wouldn't have understood that anachronistic term) as well as the majority who weren't... And, most shocking of all, those on the receiving end of the charge... Who had sat under a week long artillery barrage only to emerge to shoot down the advancing sons of Ulster and elsewhere...
The Somme is much much bigger than us and our memories and myths about it... Thank you to those behind last night's production for reminding me of that...

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

No Darkness to this Dream...

It's been a while since I posted any sort of theatre review on this blog. That's for a couple of reasons. First: lack of time - that's part of the reason my general blogging output has decreased over the past couple of years, and as I have prioritised my leisure time I have decided that sitting in a corner typing on a keyboard late at night is probably not good for my mental health!
Second: a bit of perspective - my blogging has always been primarily for an audience of one (which has been pretty close to my readership level at times) and I'm no longer fooling myself that anyone is really interested in my rantings about plays, that are frequently over or moved on before I have had time to "review" them... where I have enjoyed something I have generally said so on social media... Where I haven't I have (more recently) kept shtum. 
But last week I had the pleasure of going with our church theatre group (a group dedicated to watching rather than performing theatre) to see the RSC's Production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Belfast Grand Opera House - this was their so-called "Play for the Nation", staged to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, involving amateur companies all over the country to play the "Rude Mechanicals" and stage the "play within the play." Locally the amateurs were all drawn from the Belvoir Players and Bottom was played by a friend, Trevor Gill. 
I always find it dodgy reviewing, or even noting I am present at a production involving a friend, given that I have little or no capacity to hide any critical feelings... But any such fears were unfounded with this production. I hadn't initially planned to review it, for the reasons above... There are plenty of other, largely favourable reviews for you to find if you want... But this isn't a review... more a reflection... because the run was over very quickly and this was the end of the tour... (although if anyone happens to be reading this and can get a ticket for the production when it returns home to Stratford, I can heartily endorse it.) 
However, in response to another facebook friend's reflections on Huffington Post, Trevor Gill was bold enough to invite me to comment in further depth... So this is it. 
I said at the time that it was a thoroughly uplifting experience... Its joy was positively therapeutic. I had had a heavy few days, being involved with a couple of difficult pastoral situations and wading my way through some weighty church matters, including a substantial piece of writing, so it was a blessed relief to come into a theatre and simply enjoy a story I was familiar with, being well told, with Shakespeare richness of language and poetry being well delivered (on the whole - although Laura Riseborough playing Helena could have done with slowing down and speaking up instead of gabbling her lines at times). That combined with the colour and vibrancy of the staging, the musical scoring, the strong sense of comedy and the local resonance brought by the mechanicals, added up to a production that put a broad smile on my face and even elicited more than a few laughs (although not as many or as loud as some of the audience - including my wife, who nearly died at one point - but there is no accounting for her sense of humour... she laughs at Harry Hill). Indeed the production itself could be said to have had a broad smile on its face from begining to end - despite a set, production photos and costuming of the Athenians that spoke of coming out of the aftermath of war... They didn't make much of those overtones, and largely glossed over most of the complexity and darker threads within the play... Theseus' "martial wooing/conquest" of Hippolyta was barely hinted at, Oberon's dubious motivation for his actions (wanting possession of Titania's orphan boy) is simply accepted, as is the drug-induced resolution of the Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, Lysander love quadrangle, never mind the bestiality implied in the Titania/Bottom affair... Indeed the lacivious sexuality implied in the woodland scenes was largely absent resulting in a remarkably chaste love story (by contrast a school production I was involved in many years ago was summed up by one elderly matron saying "It was very good, but there was too much sex!"). But the joy of Shakespeare is that each and every play can be staged in so many ways: each director takes their choice of direction through the complex wood of the scripts. I'm told Russell T. Davies' BBC production (unsurprisingly) makes more of some of the darker elements in "The Dream" (and introduces a few more from what I hear), but I didn't watch it as I didn't want to compare and contrast... I wanted to enjoy the RSC production in its own right. 
And enjoy it I did. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Lucy Ellinson as Puck, who had a touch of the EmCee from Cabaret about her, a mischievious spirit, introducing and concluding the whole endeavour and weaving in a slightly sinister strand to the whole. But the highlight was, for me, the locals... not only the Belvoir mechanicals (with Trevor Gill playing a remakably sympathetic/warm Bottom (no pun intendended), Chris Curry a wonderfully efffete Flute/Thisbe and Jeeie McGreevy giving the few lines of Starveling her all, so she did) but also the boys of St. Malachy's College playing the fairy train... Because for me this was a reminder of how I fell in love with Shakespeare. Not reading it as a dry text line by line in a classroom, but performing it under the guidance of teachers/directors who understood and loved the richness of the text and wanted to convey that not only to an audience but a new generation. What a privilege it must have been for those boys (and the folks in the Belvoir players) to be part of this production with the RSC, and to feel the text truly come alive in front of an appreciative audience. I hope that the memory will live with them as long as my humbler memories of schoolboy Shakespeare have lived with me... But it also makes me sad that so few young people get this opportunity to enjoy Shakespeare "from the inside." The school I attended can no longer stage full productions because of the syllabus demands on teachers and students, although they have at least got involved in the "Schools' Shakespeare Festival" where they join others in staging 30 minute versions of various plays. At another reputable grammar school I was shocked to discover, when I asked, that they had not done anything to mark the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare's death... that is simply appalling. This  production in particular, would have been ideal to take Shakespeare virgins to, indeed a friend who had never been to a Shakespeare play before apparently laughed the whole way through. 
I doubt that he would find as much to laugh about in most productions of Shakespeare, but I hope he will not be afraid to give another one a go... and perhaps one with a few darker threads... 


Saturday, May 7, 2016


Whilst preparing for a service tomorrow I stumbled on this dialogue I posted at this time 2 years ago... it is again pertinent (with a slide amendment) in this Ascensiontide, in the wake of elections this past week and thinking about issues of sovereignty that will be thrown up by the European referendum next month. I'm not entirely convinced by the fetishism of democracy, especially given it's tendency to be subverted by tribal interested or the undue influence of those with vast amounts of money, although I would probably somewhat cynically agree with the idea that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” (whether or not Churchill ever said it). But it is probably as dangerous to identify one form of government with the Kingdom of God as it is to identify one nation with it. As I said before thanks (or should that be apologies) should go to John Bell and Graeme Maule of the Iona Community for the format if not the content of what follows... The cynicism of Peter is entirely of my own making, however, and doesn't reflect my feelings about all politicians... 
Peter:          Eh... Jesus...?
Jesus:         Yes, Peter?
Peter:          Have you ever heard of democracy?
Jesus:         Where’d you hear about that Peter?
Peter:          Oh, I heard some Greeks talking about it... They said it was some sort of government. But it's all Greek to me...
Jesus:         Well Peter... Democracy is government by the people...
Peter:          Sure we’re always governed by people... People with crowns called kings or emperors...
Jesus:         Yes, but in a democracy the people choose who will govern them by voting.
Peter:          People vote to decide who will become King?
Jesus:         Not quite... Although some of those elected behave like they’re kings or queens...
Peter:          How are people like me supposed to decide who will run the country? I know nothing about politics...
Jesus:         Well, the people who want to be elected produce manifestos to tell the voters what they will do for them if they are elected...
Peter:          Ah... and the voters elect the one who will do most for them...
Jesus:         Well, actually they usually vote for the one who will give them the biggest tax cut...
Peter:          I can understand that, I hate taxes... Actually, that reminds me Jesus... Our tax bill is due again, so Judas says if you could do another trick with those coins in that fish’s mouth the same way as you did last year that would be good...
Jesus:         I’m afraid that was a one off, Peter.
Peter:          Oh well, it was worth a try. So what do you think of this democracy stuff?
Jesus:         Its OK so long as the system is fair and the politicians honest...
Peter:          That would be a first. So is the Kingdom of Heaven going to be a democracy?
Jesus:         No...
Peter:          Why not?
Jesus:         Well, tell me... is the majority always right?
Peter:          Depends on how big a majority.
Jesus:         What do you mean?
Peter:          Well, I’m not going to stand up and tell a mob of people that what they do or say or think is wrong...
Jesus:         You’ll be surprised what you might end up doing for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Peter:          But when are we going to see this Kingdom of Heaven you’ve been talking about? You’ve been speaking about it ever since I’ve known you... And where is its capital city going to be? Where is it going to be founded?
Jesus:         I don’t know when Peter... But I do know where...
Peter:          Where? Here in Galilee?
Jesus:         No.
Peter:          Jerusalem?
Jesus:         No.
Peter:          Rome?
Jesus:         No. Nor will it be in Washington DC, Moscow, London, Brussels or even Belfast...
Peter:          Where?
Jesus:         Never mind... The point is that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a country as we know it with borders, governments, elections, taxes and a national football team...
Peter:          What?
Jesus:         Again, never mind. The Kingdom of God is a group of people who have decided to serve God as their Lord and King...
Peter:          So the people do decide who is going to be King...
Jesus:         No, the people decide whether God will be their King... Whether they will be part of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Peter:          Oh... But you still haven’t told me where it will be founded, where its capital city will be...
Jesus:         Here...
Peter:          But you already said that it wouldn’t be in Galilee...
Jesus:         No, not here in Galilee... But here, in the human heart. The Kingdom of Heaven is within you...
Peter:          Oh...  Well, I suppose I should have known that the Kingdom of Heaven wasn’t going to be a democracy, because you’d be a dreadful politician.
Jesus:         Why’s that Peter?
Peter:          You’re too honest... You keep your promises...