Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Legacy Dramaturgy: Richard Hasnip @ Edfringe 2018

On the 500th anniversary year of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, Saltmine Theatre Company created a 40-minute dramatic presentation, celebrating the life and work of a true faith pioneer. Working alongside a senior historian at London School of Theology, the creative team have produced a show based on research and study, to ensure the show truly captures the devout faith of this remarkable man. In 2018 the production was reimagined and extended ahead of a UK theatre tour (now running at approximately 1 hour 50 minutes including 20 minute interval).
The new script was written by a lecturer in Applied Theology and Head of Performing Arts at Regents Theological College, Richard Hasnip.

I believe that from the Enlightenment, there has been a movement towards the destruction of religious faith, the application of a clumsy literalism to religious sensibilities. Your work, however, seems to take religious meaning seriously. What prompted you to use this rich tradition of meaning theatrically?
That’s an interesting perspective. To some degree I think you’re probably right there has certainly been a decline in religious faith since the enlightenment. But the picture is a bit more complicated than that. From that historical perspective (and Richard Dawkins et al  would certainly lead you to believe this) you might picture religion as a kind of proto-science, something to be moved beyond once the real science shows up. 

But the history of ideas shows something (to my mind) much more interesting. If the atheists were right, then we might have expected a steady and increasing move towards atheism, but that isn’t what happened. The golden age of atheism were the early years of the twentieth century, postmodernity brought with it not only a rejection of the godlike elevation of reason and secular metanarrative, but a return to spirituality. 

The reasons for this are complex but they involve a realisation that the perspective that  humans are either highly complex machines or highly evolved animals is reductive – we have souls and spirits and the world is far more strange and inspirited than modernity would have us believe. 

You’re right that our work takes religious meaning seriously because at its heart that meaning (I mean religion in its widest sense here) is the deepest meaning there is – the ‘substance’ of culture (as Paul Tillich puts it. And (from a specifically Christian perspective) whether you take a Jungian view (or a Jordan Peterson view for that matter) that the Bible describes archetypal characters/situations or a more literal one (that describes actual historical events) or some combination of the two - the Bible has enormous power and, as Jürgen Moltmann puts it, the Christian who has properly engaged with it becomes “a constant source of disturbance in human society…the source of continual new impulses towards the realization of righteousness, freedom and humanity here in the light of the promised future to come.” This play is, amongst other things, about what happens when you engage seriously and deeply with the Bible. 
Given what I have said about religion's diminution in the Modern Era, do you have any concerns about how the work will be received?
Good question. The short answer is ‘no’ because, well, what’s the worst that can happen?

The longer answer is  ‘a bit’. Let’s imagine that the play is negatively reviewed, well, bad reviews can be very helpful, they can point out genuine weaknesses in dramatic technique. But there are bad reviews and bad reviews. Sometimes you get the feeling that the review is just an outworking of the critics antipathy towards religion and that’s lazy and sloppy and arrogant. 

Our play is about Martin Luther, a flawed man certainly, but one who risked his life for his conscience, who changed the world in a way that very few people have done (indeed without the reformation there probably is no enlightenment) and who deserves rather better than to be dismissed as irrelevant or used as an excuse to air journalistic prejudice.  
And does working with a religious content or theme introduce any particular kind of dramaturgy? I suppose I am asking about how far the way that you made the work reflects the content... classic dramaturgical question...
I don’t think that the religious content particularly does. I would suggest that the psychological exploration of Luther probably has more impact on the structure (the play is framed by scenes of Luther on his deathbed and the play is seen as a kind of fever dream depicting his life). However, on a wider point, classic dramatic structure does lend itself to ‘religious’ stories: the building up of tension until the point of revelation leading to a reversal of fortune precisely describes the structure of conversion (St Paul for example). Similarly, that point that Christopher Booker makes that within traditional storytelling once the ‘evil within’ the protagonist is defeated the defeat of the external antagonist is inevitable means that stories in general are remarkably suited to conveying Christian theology. Perhaps that means that the rejection of character, plot etc within the post-dramatic render it less useful… but I’d need to think more about that! 
How do you feel about being identified as a religious piece of theatre?
Well, it’s accurate isn’t it? For this play in particular we are undeniably telling a story that takes place within the Christian religion. I can see that it’s a helpful label in that it will help people to decide whether or not they want to see the piece.
On the other hand it’s quite limiting and intellectually rather lazy. Is a piece of theatre with an atheist protagonist a piece of  ‘religious theatre’– or just a piece of theatre? If religion (defined as that which is of ultimate concern) is the “substance” of culture, then what isn’t religious? And what about a play like Hamlet? You can’t really understand it without comprehending its religious context, the hero is clearly obsessed with specifically religious concerns about the afterlife, but do we really want to put it in a potentially limiting box like “religious theatre”. And what about the Oresteia? That describes Greek religious thought – but it’s a religion that nobody believes anymore, but it’s still religious, so is that a ‘religious play’?
It seems to me that sometime the label ‘religious play’ is a kind of intellectual get out clause that mean the critic doesn’t really have to properly engage with the work. To that extent it is unhelpful.  
And what do you feel is the relationship between religion and performance?
I see them as inevitably inextricably linked. It’s very hard to define performance in a way that does not ultimately subsume any outward form of religious expression and it’s hard to define religion in a way that doesn’t end up implicating the content of the vast majority of performance. At the heart of the Christian religion are ideas of incarnation, presence and community (see Performing the Sacred by Dale Savidge and Todd E Johnson for more on this) and those three categories are utterly central to performance.

Who are Saltmine Theatre Company?

Saltmine Trust is a Christian charity and theatre company, inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus. 

Creating and retelling stories, with a commitment to making a difference, they deliver high quality creative performances and interactive workshops. Describing what they do as 'faith motivated arts', and performing to more than 100,000 people per year, Saltmine Theatre Company aims to impact lives and transform society. 

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