Feeling very privileged, I set off last night to be in a select audience for the first performance of a remarkable piece of drama, ‘With Full Conviction’ written by my good friend Neil MacDonald.
I had seen the playscript in an earlier form and was quite excited by the possibilities. When I entered St. Wilfrid’s Church, Bognor Regis, however, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw! There was an atmospheric feel with muted lighting, green squares representing grass and two benches, opposite from each other (which would move to side by side later on in the performance), and a larger-than-life, leafy, cosmic tree in the background. Also there was a character looking as if she had sprung from the tree, Wanda by name, wandering around as the ‘spirit of the park’, witnessing and at times symbolically leading the action. The play was accompanied by a spacey, dreamy musical accompaniment that helped to prolong and deepen the impact of the piece.
What takes place in this play? Mike, a gay Christian on a lunchbreak on a park bench, gets into conversation with Kev, a young unemployed man with a bad foot. He offers to put some holy water on it, and Kev’s friend Magda and Kev himself are not a little surprised by the result.
The ripe language at times drew gasps from some in the audience (drawn I am guessing mainly from a church background), but it seemed to fit in perfectly with an educated, avuncular, camp older man making cold contact with a younger man who clearly needed help. I don’t want to give away how the play movingly develops, but I do want to single out a couple of powerful moments.
The first was when Kev just cannot cope with Mike’s probing questions and demands for a response: Mike gets a bit in Kev’s face, and Kev leaps up, swinging Mike around and landing a punch in his stomach. Completely believable and shocking. I almost wanted to dive up and help ‘Mike’ myself. At this point, I felt that the character Magda, who is a friend to Kev but at the same time is more open-minded than him towards things spiritual, valuably conveys the audience’s shock and sense of decorum.
The second powerful moment comes later on – the play is partly inspired by the Ravensbruck Prayer, and it’s after Magda retells the story of Etty and her experience in the Second World War, that the quick repartee between Mike and Magda becomes very powerful and a dialogue of faith and its possibilities: the line ‘Everything can change’ really rang out at me and is inspiring me still. From this point onwards, the drama had a powerful sense of onward momentum: it wasn’t just a sense that ‘Mike’ as your representative Christian was out on a mission in the world, but the three individuals are drawn together and discover they all need each other – the power came as Mike freezes and appears to become catatonic. It is Kev, surprisingly, who responds warmly to Mike and helps him. It becomes Mike’s turn to show his need, and it is just as broken, urgent and desperate as the others.
I think for myself as a Christian, I do not take seriously enough the help that I can receive from others, particularly those who would not identify themselves as ‘Jesus freaks’. God uses everyone, and we need each other. Sometimes, the only person who can help you is a Christian – what’s the problem with that? But at other times, as Christians, we need to allow those around us to support us – I think Jesus would have done the same, and probably often did. We might be surprised by the way what they say keys in to our need and where we are – as Hopkins wrote, ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in eyes and lovely in limbs not His.’ That probably sounds patronising for those who are not God-botherers, but to put it a different way, kindness and love is not limited to Christians – quite the opposite!
The power in the last moments of the play as the characters leave the stage, with the lines: “we are ordinary people…people who must love…whatever the cost.” meant that those of us in the audience just sat there, slightly awestruck, by the vision, the tawdriness, the magic (of the music, of the set), and the sheer guts of this play. Here we were, in a church building and church community, watching a play written by a member of that community (but may I say performed by at least two people very much strangers to institionalised church): yet the play was saying – the institution is not enough to help, not everyone. It was also saying: gay people can show others the way to Jesus. It was also saying: we should keep trying and keep believing.
I guess the value of community is that love is found in actions, rather than simply intentions. This play came out of a desire to communicate the value of an Ignatian Retreat and the Spiritual Exercises: one great tool that these provide are about helping to make better choices. Everything can change because we can change our choices.
I don’t feel that I’ve done the play justice at all – it’s being performed tonight and tomorrow night:
at All Saints Church, Hove – you can find more information about the project here.
I may come back and write more about this at a later stage, but thank you Neil, Jack, Mari, Joanna (actors and last one, director), as well as Gus, Zoe, Marian and those others involved as well, for a remarkable and memorable evening.