After Grenfell: the Faith Groups’ Response
A study into the responses of faith groups to the Grenfell Tower tragedy on 14th June 2017. (2018)
Anna Wheeler reviews ‘The Writer’ and discusses how good theatre, like religion, should challenge us to ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’.
It only occurred to me recently that I often get the same responses from people on both theatre and religion: ‘It’s not for me’, followed by a polite rather British change of subject.
‘They are you’ should be my reply since both activities are about us – what makes us who we are?, what do we believe? and how should we behave? Both, when they are functioning at their best, make us think about what kind of world we want to live in, how we flourish within it, and how we revitalise or re–inform our conversation when it has gone sour – or perhaps doesn’t exist at all.
The play The Writer which I saw last month at London’s Almeida Theatre is not a play that holds back, and its writer Ella Hickson said of it, ‘you have a responsibility to say difficult things.’ The essence of the play is that if you don’t, nothing will change. One of the things the play can be seen to be asking is how we achieve culture change – in whatever sector we work or live in. How do we listen and work with people who are so very different from us? How can we be authentic to our cause when we must often work with ‘the other’, who is often requiring us to go with the crowd – the ‘existing culture’? A few pages in, we are asked, ‘Do you think there were artists in history that didn’t have to think about what people would buy and it made them the ones that saved us when our souls needed saving?’. The play reminds us to think about what we hold real in our lives, what we hold sacred – and how far are we willing to go in our lives, personally and professionally, to uphold that.
The play is about a writer wanting to change the status quo. None of the characters in the play have names – they are ‘writer’, ‘male actor’, ‘director’ who are representative of themselves and their own lives, but also of us – everyman, and everywoman. It opens with a woman approaching the stage and once on it, it is clear she is looking for something. We learn that she has just seen a play and has left her bag in the audience. (This is a play within a play, within a play). On comes the director (not the director, but another actor playing him) asking what she is doing on stage – she explains she has left her bag. He goes on to ask her if she enjoyed the play, and what follows, is some of the most raw and honest dialogue I have heard on stage in a long while. She is appalled by the use/portrayal of women in the play she has seen and questions this man’s ‘truth’ in comparison to hers. She wants ‘the world to change shape’ and her anger is palpable at the let–down she feels that the play she has just seen, has not the courage to do that. She also questions what theatre could do, but doesn’t always do. If it doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable enough, – or worse, it encourages us to laugh at uncomfortableness and dismiss it – people will never feel challenged to go out and change society (if they even feel it needs to changed). ‘A couple of hundred middle–class folk, here to appease their soul for a few hours so they can…trot on home?’. As far as she is concerned, this isn’t enough; and her argument is not dissimilar to some who question church going on a Sunday morning – it’s not always enough to just listen and move on, because what is being talked about are actual, real problems that need action.
For the writer in the play, she is real and effective when she is writing stories about how to change the cultural conversation in the real world. There is sometimes a similar paradox which people of faith express when their faith calls them to social action – they want people to accept that their beliefs are as real as the world they hold them in. The writer later remarks ‘Either I can feel real but I’m living in a world of cartoons or you and the world are real and I feel like I go see–through.’ So, she (and anyone feeling like her) must reconcile her liveability in a world that might feel unreal – yet if she wants to penetrate a difficult culture in order to transform it, she must live in it and learn to work with it.
Their conversation is complex. He patronises her and she fires back at him, ‘You shouldn’t ask somebody to tell you how they feel if you’re going to laugh at them.’ He asks her to write something, believing that her anger will fuel it and make it interesting, but she is fully aware that if she does that, what she writes will be tampered with and ‘edited’ by a director to fit an audience – to fit the existing culture. He points out that when you have a voice it needs to be heard, and for it to be heard it needs to be sold…in other words, it is better to compromise and be heard rather than to not be heard at all.
Hickson says when theatre is at its best, it is ‘the collective act of faith – humans, sitting together, breathing and believing – creates transformation, right there in front of you.‘ Good religion also does this – it should challenge and even unsettle you because it is real and because that means you are moved to think about your life, and your life in relation to others. It is called empathy. Recent research from University College London talks about empathy in theatre as a synchronisation of the heartbeats of strangers sharing a not dissimilar, experience (1). Similarly, religion at its best, asks us to empathise. Getting on with people in the world who are different, and who say different or challenging things, should not be so hard with this quality.
The title of this blog, from another play, tells us to note the signs of the times and speak up when we are called to. Where do we begin to rebuild a community, society or world, when there appears to be very little left or total ‘nothingness’, – and very little in terms of shared conversation? We of course don’t wish for the brokenness, confusion, hopelessness and disillusionment we are presented with at the end of King Lear as a starting point, but sometimes it does take a catastrophic shattering of glass before pieces can be replaced in a very different order to how they were before. A few small cracks are not enough, but from those the bigger ones appear. Out of hopelessness, things can be said better (and more thoughtfully), done better (and more graciously), ‘felt’ better (and more deeply), than they were before.
So, the next time you hear something about religion, faith or belief, or about theatre for that matter, – don’t dismiss and say ‘it’s not for me’. Because they are about you, and your experience in the world. You are part of them just by virtue of existing and you are not immune to making positive change where it is due.
Title taken from part of Edgar’s speech, King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3
1. Stephanie Bain, Literary Manager at the Almeida Theatre, talks about this in the play programme notes, p.13.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.