Last night I enjoyed a mash up between the traditional mystery play and contemporary culture, in Durham Mysteries. This was community theatre and “high culture” coming together in an amazingly refreshing way to release the bible from the constraints that “the church” has placed upon it and pose some of those difficult theological questions that only “ordinary theology” dare raise in polite company. In the process they managed to introduce the bible narratives to far more young people than most churches could hope to.
There were 10 stories, each performed by different groups from the local community, predominantly young people. You could buy tickets for individual plays or the whole package (which worked out cheaper). I know the Gala and Cathedral tickets have sold out but think there are still tickets available for The Sands where the majority of action takes place.
The action started in the Gala Theatre with “The Fall of Lucifer” subtitled “Heaven’s Got Talent” where a group of 6th formers from a local school looked at the devil’s fall from a “talent show/ reality tv perspective”. The most amazing bit of this was they got full audience participation in a moment of wierdness. It was cool.
Then it was up to the Cathedral where I managed to, totally without any planning beyond the 30 seconds before when I clocked them sitting there with a gap next to them, managed to sit next to a couple of old friends from the church I was part of down south. There were lots of cute kids in “The Fall”, but it was “posh music” of the sort where you can’t really tell the words and all got a bit “high culture” meets school assembly. My least favourite bit.
Then it was down to the Sands, an outdoor space where we all unpacked our blankets and stuff. We hadn’t realised there were deck chairs available for those without chairs….but hey a blanket with some butties and a little to drink was good. There were 8 plays here. The odd ones, like Abraham and Issac and The Harrowing of Hell were a bit arty for my taste, but very well performed by a bunch of teenagers.
My favourites were “Cain and Abel” and “Noah and the Fludd” which followed on from each other. The former was an exploration of sibling rivalry and street culture. It involved some street dance, break dance, rap and poetry and, whilst not the most polished bit of the show in places, it was brilliant and I loved it.
Then there was Noah and the Fludd. Noah, comedy style comes to the North East. It was hilarious but raised the serious issues around what God did and why, through some interaction between her and her angels.
After the interval we moved onto the new testament. The interpretation of the passion narrative was most moving because of the way a young man was raised up on a cross with people at either side. It was seeing the ropes being pulled and how a cross was actually put in an upright position that got me, somehow….particularly when you realised it was an “ordinary job”.
However, my favourite piece in this section was The Miracle of Lazarus where they explored what would happen these days. It explored the government reaction to protest, protesters and crowds they didn’t have full control over but also the way religion is viewed within that. The classic lines included the policeman telling the paramedic “you have to take the proper precautions when there’s a faith angle”. The disciples were described as “his 12 hardcore activists”.
I am not into “panto” but I am into “low culture” and particularly good contemporary drama which is “low culture”. I think that’s one of the reasons I loved the evening so much. Whilst the audience really was the Durham middle classes out to enjoy the arts the people on stage were a much more mixed bunch. This was a true example of what community arts is about and why amid important budget cuts we must ensure that projects like this aren’t the first to go. This was about bringing people together and developing their skills and talents. It was also a really interesting lesson in narrative preaching in terms of how the texts were taken and used to connect with a contemporary audience. Oh and one thing I hadn’t mentioned was how the inmates of one of the local jails had put together a cartoon film based on Jonah which was played in the interval. This involved Sunderland supporters changing their ways and wearing the black and white of Newcastle instead.
They’re talking about making this a three yearly event and I really hope they do, because as I say it was one of the most exciting things I have seen in ages.