Preaching to the stalls

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Reverend Billy Reverend Billy
Posted: Mon Aug 1 2011

For God's sake! Why is the theatre - bastion of godless middle-class lefties - going back to the bible?

The King James Bible is 400 years old this year. And the theatre is throwing it a party: obscure reformation stars like Lancelot Andrewes, radical martyr William Tyndale and the poet-dean John Donne are coming out all over the stage.

Shakespeare's Globe has dedicated its summer to the KJB: the current hit of its 'The Word Is God' season is Howard Brenton's 'Anne Boleyn', a racy dramatisation of the long and bloody birth of the Anglican church; this week's opening is 'The Globe Mysteries', a modern version of the bible-story plays which were performed for centuries until strolling players were banned 1572.

Fast forward to October and David Edgar's new play about Tyndale, 'Written on the Heart', will open at the RSC's Swan Theatre and the National will present 12 Sunday afternoon bible extracts. Even new writing bastion the Bush is going biblical: it opens its new venue with 'Sixty-Six Books', writers' responses to everything from Genesis to Revelations.
The burning question is: why celebrate the bible in the theatre?

In the 400 years since publication of the KJB, theatre has become an established part of our increasingly secular state. I don't think we'll see the day when theatre attendance is an entrance criteria for primary schools, but the requirements of state funding have pushed theatres, via outreach, to do community work that the church has traditionally undertaken.

You can have fun at the National but the theatre has also become an alternative national conscience, responding more loudly and positively than the church to contemporary moral issues like the gay and women's lib movements (go and see 'Billy Elliot' to witness how far those liberal values have trickled down into popular entertainment).

There's not a lot of congregational overlap between the two institutions now, but according to Donne expert Dr Peter McCullough it was hotly competitive 400 years ago, when barnstorming divines like John Donne drew crowds of 3,000 to St Paul's, London's first Reformation cathedral.

'Pulpit and playhouse were using similar methods to capture the same people', says McCullough, who points out that Donne's sermons 'make rich allusions to “Dr Faustus”'. And compulsory church-going helped create a culture of speaking and listening in which the new theatre of Shakespeare could thrive, because people from all walks of life were exposed to high-end rhetoric.

These days, church and theatre face similar challenges: how to keep the word alive in an image-saturated, information-overloaded culture where it's possible to live without having any meaningful contact with people who are unlike you - one reason why there's general literary nostalgia for the KJB with its beloved language, archaic even by Jacobean standards. Plus, bolshier leadership of the church under Dr Rowan Williams - who is contributing, alongside Jeanette Winterson, to 'Sixty-Six Books' - has raised its approval-rating amongst godless luvvies.

The present-day Chancellor of St Paul's, Dr Giles Fraser, is one of the church's most eloquent left-wingers - and has appeared in a fictional guise at Soho Theatre, in Mick Gordon and AC Grayling's play, 'On Religion.' He argues that the theatre could learn a lot from the church, which is - paradoxically - at a moral advantage because it knows 'it has blood on its hands' and actively 'strives to change' its participants. Also, its congregations have a social diversity that ACE applicants would give their eye-teeth for.

'The theatre can be very smug,' argues Fraser. 'It often fails to acknowledge its complicity and yours.' Theatre, runs the argument, shares a key flaw of the post-holocaust consensus in that it lets you wallow in identification with the victim instead of forcing a more soul-searching affinity with the perpetrator.

It's a fair caricature - but the best theatre takes you miles beyond your comfort zone. It's no accident that
the most influential Iraq play, 'Blackwatch', told the heavily accented story of Scottish soldiers. But if theatre is going to break the moral news, then maybe it could pick up a few crusading tips from its old enemy.

One performer who has nicked church methods to great effect is Reverend Billy: New York leader of the 'Church of Earthalujah', a tongue-in-cheek crusader who deploys the sing-song charisma of right-wing TV evangelists in his fight against bad corporations and what he calls (in organ-like tones) 'the earth emergency'.

Last week, the Rev did a gospel choir-backed exorcism on the Tate Modern to protest its sponsorship by BP (watch it here). For him, preaching is a reclaimable 'folk form: like hip hop, like the blues, in the world of incantatory storytellling.' It can make direct powerful contact with people - as he saw when he attended a 1960s church in Hell's Kitchen, run by Tennessee Williams's cousin, Sydney Lanier, who preached the bible, Beckett and Steinbeck.

Reverend Billy is a niche example in a long history of crossover between theatre and church, which have haggled for legitimacy and an audience, playing out ritual stories which are older than the theatre at Epidaurus (where the original St Paul delivered a rousing sermon against paganism). Pulpit and playhouse are both part of the establishment now. But if they're to go beyond preaching their foundational book - whether that's the KJB or the 'Complete Works' - they might still have something to learn from each other.

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