Thankful for an Unsettling Night at the Theatre

Whilst the great and the good were round the corner in the Waterfront Hall rattling their jewellery in appreciation of Van the East Belfast Free Man, I was in the cosier surroundings of the MAC Theatre watching an uncomfortable play based in East Belfast... or at least the outer reaches of East Belfast, my former "parish" of Dundonald/Ballybeen. This isn't a review as such, since there is only one matinee and one evening performance left, although if you can get a ticket I would recommend that you should... it is an excellent production, with four very good performances. I would particularly recommend it if you aren or are considering becoming, a minister... Earlier in the run the blogger Alan Meban posted a perceptive review, and in conversation with his wife, fellow cleric Cheryl, the suggestion arose that perhaps theological training colleges should have taken out a block booking. I doubt that happened, but there were a small coterie of clerics in the audience last night including a fellow Methodist, a Presbyterian and a Pentecostal pastor, one of whom also ministered on my old patch.

A couple of people who have seen the play have asked whether it was based on my experiences (one even asked had I ghost written it - I wish I had).. For a number of reasons I am glad to say "No..." First because, thankfully nothing so remotely dramatic has ever happened to me, and secondly, because I hope I would have responded slightly differently than the main protagonist. I did however, get sight of the rehearsal script before it went into production, because the set designer and dramaturge wanted a conversation about various things and were pointed in my direction. Also, whilst I don't know the author, I did know members of his family and the churches alluded to in the play, although, due to family/community sensitivities the author and production team didn't want a close association being made between the characters in the play and those in real life. I think that was wise given that some of the situations are extreme (they wouldn't be dramatic otherwise) and whilst based on reality (I recognised many of the positions adopted in the play) none of the characters are ones that I could directly identify. There were a couple of quibbles I would have had with the staging and plot, but it rang true on many levels.

All that said, having read the script I went along to the play somewhat reluctantly... It has been a long and tiring week, and I've not been feeling the best, and was daunted by having to sit through a harrowing production... In the wrong hands the script could have turned into something akin to "Rev" without laughs. But I needn't have feared, the warmth and vitality breathed into the production, meant that the tension was leavened with humour, and, if anything, I was more frustrated by the nervous laughter of some members of the audience at grossly inappropriate points (as well as the cultured voice behind me that bleated out during a point of high tension when the actors were deliberately whispering... "I can't hear!")
I hope this play gets another airing, indeed the production itself deserves a longer run or tour... I would love to have seen it do a tour of churches, because there are important issues raised within it not only for ministers but for local churches, their members and the communities they find themselves in. However, I doubt you would find enough local churches/ministers willing to host it to make such a tour viable, as it touches on subjects that would be dynamite in many places. And here I'm not just talking about the predictable areas of homosexuality/homophobia and religion (the source of one of the funniest interchanges of the night - funny yet deadly serious) and child sexual abuse that form an important component of the drama, but other more fundamental issues.

This includes the inability of people, and particularly ministers, to be open about their doubts, questions and unpopular positions. In the play the minister is almost naively honest in one to one discussions about his questions, and indeed about some of the conclusions that he has come to on hot button topics such as homosexuality and hell, but he also makes it clear that he would not admit that openly in the pulpit. This raises questions about the nature of truth, "the truth" that sets you free and honesty... and which are truly helpful/healing/liberating in certain situations...

Part of this is that sometimes we see truth in terms of something to be articulated... Put into words... And this is a very "wordy" play... made up almost entirely of one to one dialogue... With the central character, the minister, being a lover of words... One character says to him:
"You’re very good with the words, aren’t you?... You know the right words to say.  The big words."
I heard a colleague recently report a similar comment, seeing it as a compliment:
"You're quare and good at flinging the words around."
The latter may have been a compliment (though I don't know about that) but the line in the play definitely was not... Yet as ministers words are the tools of our trade as preachers... and too often we see them as central to our pastoral role. We talk too much and listen too little. And most of our knowledge about key pastoral concerns are gleaned from books (at best in this non-book-reading generation). His books are important to the minister in this play... He has more books in his vestry than any I have ever seen (I, and I suspect most ministers, keep most of my books - particularly the dodgy ones - at home in my study, which may say something profound in itself) and when asked about his knowledge of a particular pastoral situation he responds:
"I’ve read books on the subject."
That says so, so much about many ministers (including this one), our ministries and how we were trained for ministry... We're encouraged to read, but rarely are we offered the chance to experience the raw end of life in a safe and supported setting... Until we are dropped out of theological college into a church/parish where most of our pastoral ministry will be exercised in a one-to-one setting... With no real accountability or support... Where we are expected to act not simply as part of the body of Christ, but allow ourselves to become mini-Messiahs in our own right...

This is where the production got really uncomfortable for me... The vulnerability of much of modern ministry. There SHOULD be a level of vulnerability... but often we are vulnerable in all the wrong ways... We are wary of being vulnerable in the pulpit... where in many ways we are physically and psychologically safer than we might think... Yet we often get into situations where we are vulnerable to physical and emotional attack. On coming out of the production I got into a brief discussion with Martin Lynch who was very positive about the play, but criticised the key dramatic moment where the minister was being physically threatened, suggesting that he could have escaped on a number of occasions. I defended it on the basis of crisis situations producing "fight, flight or freeze" responses, and that the latter could well have been the response of this character... But on further reflection I believe that staying in that place of danger was entirely consistent with the character of this minister, as he could have gotten out of the situation MANY times before that, or rather, drawn others into it, but rather he remained there because he saw himself as the answer to the problem... not God, or Jesus, but himself and his intellectual abilities... With another minister it may have been their faith in their spiritual or empathetic abilities... but in far too many cases ministers unnecessarily expose themselves to potentially disastrous pastoral situations because of this messiah complex. Sometimes, by the grace of God, good comes from it, but sometimes those involved can get badly hurt... rarely as dramatically as in the play, but occasionally, because the minister simply cannot meet all the complex needs he/she encounters, either the person/people they are dealing with moves on to someone else, is quietly or not so quietly "dumped" by the minister, or the minister becomes burnt out...

This can be exacerbated by the other phenomenon in this play... the vulnerability to a whispering campaign... Things being said in the community and church itself... people voting with their feet but rarely telling the minister to their face what their problem is... Or when they do, either putting it in the third person:
"People don't like you..."
or delivering their analysis with a smile/prayer on their lips and hatred in their eyes. The most chilling episode for me last night, was not one character threatening the minister with violence, but his sister threatening to destroy him with innuendo and using scripture as a weapon (scarily the text used... not one of the more obvious ones, is the lectionary reading for this Sunday).

And that was the overall feeling in this play... the brooding sense of threat and fear that was more palpable than the supposed heat of the Summertime alluded to in the title... Actually one of the elements absent from the play (which would probably not have been absent in real life given where it was supposedly set) was the wider threat from paramilitaries... Given any suggestion of child abuse, or sexual impropriety, it would be unusual for there not to be the hint of interest from the paradoxically amoral moral-policemen of such a community... But the playwright didn't dip his toe in that murky pool... What he was dealing with was difficult enough. It was fear that set the parameters of what the minister could and couldn't say publicly... And fear of hell was articulated as being the bulwark against evil: 
"If there’s no hell, there’s no morality, anyone can do anything..."
Is that true? The minister in this play was an advocate of a God of love that he found difficult to reconcile with eternal punishment in hell... That's a subject for a whole other blog/book/library of books... But does the love of such a God cast out all fear? And to what degree does truth or honesty set people free from such fear?

This is a play that raises many more questions than answers... 
Including, why would you call the City Airport after Geordie Best?



Alan Meban said…
I'm not sure Jonathan could flee the violent scene - he needed a piece of information from Isaac to save another life.

The nervous tittering was fascinating. At times I wanted to find a pause button and ask other members of the audience why they found it funny, or why they found it uncomfortable.

The "penis" line from the minister was probably the most absurdly funny of the whole evening.

Leaving aside the subject matter, I doubt many church leaders would tolerate the language on their premises, though I'm glad to hear you found quite a few other clerics in the audience. Could you sell it to a Methodist congregation?

It's a strong piece of drama, and full of ideas that will stick with us for many years to come. I look forward to whatever David Ireland writes next.

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