Joe and I went to the theatre yesterday to see a play. It was, according to the flyer we picked up earlier in the week, an “enchanting adaptation of a medieval mystery play about the beginning of everything”.
Mystery plays are plays based on Bible stories. In a medieval world where very few people could read or write, one way of teaching Bible stories was through drama. This performance included music, dance, singing and a backdrop screen with famous paintings of various Bible scenes projected on to it.
In terms of performance I would say the music was good. The harp player was excellent. A flute played a merry little tune every so often, and a cello created mood by playing a single haunting note. The singers were adequate, the dancers too – but they weren’t professionals.
As the scenes progressed – it put me in mind of my time in South Africa when we took the film “Jesus” to various outdoor venues around the black townships of Durban. We had a big screen, a projector and a generator. The film was in Zulu, so but knew the story well enough to provide my own mental dialogue.
The film wasn’t watched in silence. The audience joined in. There was a lot of hissing at snakes and bad people, and a lot of clapping for miracles performed. There were sharp intakes of breath when the nails were hammered into Jesus’ palms and there were sobs when he surrendered his spirit. I am not sure if the film took it as far as the resurrection scenes – I seem to remember not, but I am sure that there would have been some loud cheers at the empty tomb.
Then - it wasn’t s silent audience.
I have a “joining in” gene that gets switched on sometimes. Last night, I wanted to “join in”. The audience at the theatre wasn’t a big one. We were competing with the pantomime in the main theatre – so we had a select few. There might actually have been more people on stage than there were watching. I got the impression that many of the audience were friends or relatives of the people on stage, there to show solidarity. There wasn’t an invitation given openly, or not, to join in. The pantomime in the main theatre would have encouraged joining in (Oh no it wouldn’t!), but not this play.
I imagined medieval days, and being outside and the mystery plays performed to various village and town crowds. What the audience watched was familiar to them from previous years. The Bible stories they told had been told last year and the year before that. The audience knew when to hiss, clap, sob and cheer – and they were not a silent audience. Heaven and hell were realities to them. Excommunication was a threat they dreaded. They wanted to see the devil come to a sticky end and they wanted to see the saints triumph. They wanted to hear the booming voice of God.
It’s hard to imagine that there are children growing up that don’t know the full repertoire of Bible stories that I know. They are told that it’s all superstitious nonsense and that rational people don’t think believe these things any more. There may be interesting moral lessons to learn – but you can get those same messages from Harry Potter books.
I enjoyed the plays. I was not quite sure that the Authorised Version narrative helped make the message accessible. I think I saw at least one person I knew on stage. What I loved about last night was not having to read the Bible account for myself and imagine the changing scenes but watch as it played out for me.
I immersed myself in the stories and, if I couldn’t visibly join in, I did so invisibly.