My new play – First Light: a Passion Play for Hertford – had its production at Easter, 3 and 4 April 2015, in St Andrew’s Church Hertford.
The director, Trevor Michael Georges, and a wonderful cast of professional and non-professional actors, made it a fantastic show and the audience response was enthusiastic and moving.
Here’s an extract from the play.
From FIRST LIGHT Act 1
Here’s a clip of the interview I gave to BBC Three Counties Radio about the production: you can listen by following this link https://clyp.it/bmsoab0w
Why I wrote a Passion Play
First Light is not a play I ever thought I would write. Having been subjected to the full blast of a Roman Catholic education as a child and teenager, and having found as I grew older that the more I read and questioned, the more I disagreed with the conventional teachings, I had no wish to write about Christianity.
“I’m not getting involved with religion. It’s a minefield!” as Pontius Pilate says in First Light (one of the many lines I enjoyed writing).
But I have always been interested in the longstanding English tradition of local mystery plays, which are among the gems of the English language. Their lasting power was fully demonstrated in Tony Harrison’s marvellous versions of The Mysteries, produced by the National Theatre in the 1980s. I was lucky enough to see one of these at the Lyceum – it was a fantastic theatrical experience and I have an abiding memory of Brian Glover delivering the words of God in a Yorkshire accent from the top of a forklift truck (yes indeed…).
So when Alan Stewart, the vicar of St Andrew’s Hertford and St Mary’s Hertingfordbury, said the idea had arisen of doing a mystery play in the town, I was intrigued. It chimed with my enthusiasm for community plays, having just written and produced The Last Witch. Alan is a far from traditional vicar and he did not envisage a traditional play – when he wondered whether it would be possible to write a contemporary treatment of the Gospel stories, I saw a challenge.
The medieval mystery plays were a full cycle of dramas, covering typically the creation, the nativity, the passion (ie the events of Easter: Christ’s trial, crucifixion and resurrection) and doomsday, or the last judgment. We decided to focus on the passion and put it on as an Easter event.
The great thing about the old mystery plays is what they tell us about medieval life, rather than what they say about the Bible stories. The writers used the language and situations of their day, so in a nativity play, there is a sheep-stealer among the shepherds. In Tony Harrison’s text, Mak the sheep-stealer complains that he has too many kids at home, his wife sits around drinking and he is skint: “I ate not a needle this month and more.” When the shepherds fall asleep, he sees his chance: “A fat sheep, I dare say, A good fleece, dare I lay, Pay back when I may, But this I will borrow…”
So I see First Light as being in a long English tradition of mucking about with the Bible stories.
First Light treats Jesus and his friends (the disciples) as people living here and now. They are not saints: they are caught in desperate events and they do not know how things will turn out. Jesus – I called him Yesh in the play, partly to reduce the preconceptions about him and partly so that it wouldn’t sound as if the actors were swearing all the time – is not filled with divine foreknowledge and acceptance of his destiny. He is gripped with doubt and fear, but also has courage.
They are not exactly in 21st century England, but rather in an occupied country, which is crucial to the story. I was not drawing any direct parallels here with the political situation in any other countries, but I did want to explore what it would feel like to live under occupation, to feel that sense of powerlessness. The play includes monologues from characters who are very much living in 21st century England and who have been rendered powerless in various ways – by redundancy, or poverty or the constraints of their working life. The woman who has to resort to a food bank to feed her children, and the jobcentre employee who has stopped her benefits are both trapped in the same punitive system.
I’m not a churchgoer and First Light is not an evangelical play, in the sense that it doesn’t set out to convince an audience of specific Christian beliefs. So what is the point of putting on a Passion Play in today’s secular society, if you don’t simply want to make an existing church congregation feel more holy?
I think that even though we are, rightly, a secular society, the Easter story of death and resurrection is a founding myth of Western culture and is worth examining. Everyone is happy to celebrate Christmas and talk about the ‘spirit of Christmas’, even if they are in no way religious. But we don’t talk about the ‘spirit of Easter’. It is a much more unsettling and challenging story, involving a horrific judicial murder, followed by an event that is frankly supernatural – a bodily rising from the dead. What are we to make if it? Much easier to stick to chocolate eggs.
I personally don’t think that the events (albeit fairly detailed) in the Gospels are unedited historical truth. However, I do think there is truth to be found in the Easter story and that is what I tried to portray in First Light. What might death and resurrection mean for us? I’m not talking about an afterlife, but in the life we’re living now. We all encounter death – not just actual bereavement but the spiritual deaths of rejection, failure, depression, loss. Our society dementedly tries to sort people into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and when you are deemed a loser, it is hard to find the resources to strengthen yourself, to value your life again. You need resurrection, rebirth, and my interpretation of the Easter myth is that the possibility of this resurrection is always there. You can view that in religious terms or you can simply look out of your window at this time of year, when spring brings everything back to life.