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Reflections: Theatre and its Place in our Lives

By The Ven. David Gunn-Johnson

Not surprisingly, as I began pondering what to share with you, my thoughts turned to theatre and its place in our lives; first in the broadest sense and then, much closer to home, with the current production in the Cathedral of Twelfth Night.

I have been cast as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a foppish fool who is being conned out of his money by the carousing, drunken, Sir Toby Belch. The Director assures me that this is not a case of typecasting! As ever, with Shakespeare, the foolish and funny is held in fine balance with the romantic and the deeply serious. That thought stirred the memory of a conversation between a bishop and an actor-manager of an earlier age. The two were great friends and it was after a performance that the two of them were in the actor’s dressing room taking a little sherry prior to a late supper. The bishop lamented,

“Why is it that when I proclaim the profoundest of truths people are scarcely moved but when you proclaim complete fiction, they are enthralled.”

The reply:

“When I proclaim fiction I, for that moment, make it sound to be the truth. When you proclaim truth, you make it sound like fiction”

Oh dear. On behalf of every preacher who has ever had the same experience, Ouch!

However, the challenge this poses is not just for bishops and preachers.

When people go to the theatre what is required of them is a suspension of disbelief. For the duration of the performance, they must allow it, at some level, to become a reality; transient, but in a sense, real.

When people go to church, (and, in spite of what you might read and hear, lots still do) or listen to sermons, what is required of them? What happens, for some people, is exactly what happens in the theatre, a suspension of disbelief. The dodgy or difficult bits of the bible readings or the sermon, at times are let go in favour of a focus on the general drift of the experience. In just the same way a theatre audience will ignore or forget a lighting glitch or a forgotten line. The inconvenient disjunctures in the Gospel story, which, in theatrical terms, might be called “holes in the plot”, might be allowed to pass without disturbing the serenity of the Sunday experience.

For the suspension of disbelief to turn into faith (not necessarily belief to start with but that’s another article), it is necessary to acknowledge all the doubts, the unanswered questions, the bits that don’t make sense. Then, in spite of all that, to allow the question, “If in the heart of all this there is truth, if there is a reality in what is being proclaimed here, then how can it touch me and make me complete?”

And that is a question for those who are wondering whether to give church a try and for those of us who have been going for ever.