Making a crisis out of a drama
On 16th January 1997 a free newspaper bearing the front-page headline BLASPHEMY! plopped through every letter box in the municipality of Preston in Lancashire, England, and in many of its surrounding districts. It caused a local media storm, made headlines in national newspapers and sent ripples right around the world. This is an account of how the furore was created, contested and concluded.
I was the only teacher of Drama at Cardinal Newman College in Preston during the final decade of the last millennium. Theatre had only been on the curriculum for four years, but recreational drama had flourished for almost a decade and it was decided to stage an ambitious production to mark that anniversary. The hunt was on for a topic and a style of theatre that suited the college: an institution that had Catholic roots stretching back over 130 years.
Mystery Plays fitted the bill perfectly. For the uninitiated, Mystery Plays have nothing to do with contemporary crime or the puzzles depicted in detective stories, but are concerned with religious mysteries in the sense of the metaphysically mysterious. They were used during a lengthy period of English history to both entertain and educate a largely illiterate laity with respect to Bible stories. They were performed on feast days and a tradition emerged in which different Guilds (professional trades organisations) would perform allotted scenes; for example, the shipwrights presented Noah’s flood, the goldsmiths fashioned the adoration of the three kings.
Several cycles, or part cycles, of mystery plays can be found in print. One such sequence is still produced in the city of York, with the next enactment scheduled for 2022.
After examining various texts, I decided to base the Newman Limelights’ Tenth Anniversary Production on the Chester cycle. Some scenes were to be modernised but would adhere closely to the traditional medieval text, or to the Bible verses on which they were founded.
Done in full, the Mysteries can last all day while the audience journey from the Creation to the Apocalypse. We settled on an evening show of a more manageable length. Scenes were selected, scripts were prepared and the play was cast.
The scene that caused the most trepidation was the birth of Christ. How can performers aged sixteen to nineteen be asked to take part in a drama that has become so quintessentially associated with tea-towels on the heads of toddlers? My method of solving this problem was simple: deputise someone else to solve it.
At the time, the College a had system of ‘Student Assistants’. These were gap year alumni who were employed on a casual basis to assist with aspects of subjects with multiple logistic demands. I charged Jennifer Martin with solving the Bethlehem problem. “Take a bunch of students,” I said, “and sort out the Nativity. I don’t care how you do it as long as they feel comfortable performing it.” The solution she and they devised was nothing short of excellent.
The Nativity was relocated to contemporary Northern Ireland. The virgin birth aspect was supremely understated and the absence of clichéd costumes combined with the modern attitudes to make a rendition that was authentic without being crass, and moving without being dependent on spiritual affiliation.
We staged that scene as a preview in December 1996 and it was well received. Great!
There was one consequence of this success that was to prove momentous. If Christ was born in Europe 1997 then he would need to die in roughly 2030. Fantastic! – we’d transpose the Passion and set it in Europe in the future. It opened up all kinds of possibilities with respect to costume and scenery as well as pumping up the contemporary relevance.
That decision lit the fuse on time-bomb number one.
I had cast Rosemary Sabour in the role of Jesus Christ. I had selected her for two reasons: she was a very fine actor, and she had what I regarded as a classical Mediterranean look that put me in mind of some of the biblical figures depicted in Renaissance art. Initially it was my intention to stage the New Testament scenes in a sort of pseudo-Renaissance visual style, but that went out of the gallery window following the relocation of the Nativity scene. However, Rosie remained my first choice for the role. Rosie was not a Catholic, but a member of the Baháʼí Faith, a belief system of which I was only superficially aware. It is a religion that acknowledges Jesus as a prophet, or manifestation of God, and that also has strict rules regarding the representation of the sacred.
One student, (to my eternal frustration I cannot remember who it was) approached me during rehearsals and said, “Since we are setting the Jesus scenes in the future, does Rosie have to play Christ as a man? Can she not play Christ as a female?”
My mind surged. “That’s brilliant!” I declared.
No, it wasn’t.
It was time-bomb number two.
The cast were invigorated by the new interpretation and we decided to call the female Messiah Jessica.
Perhaps the most ironically named actor – Christian – then came to see me. He wanted to discuss the role of Mary Magdalene who is traditionally depicted as a ‘fallen woman’. “If Jesus is female, shouldn’t we make Mary Magdalene male?” he proposed.
“I suppose that makes sense.”
“But he should keep the same profession.”
“Are you offering to play the part, Christian?”
“I’d give it a crack.”
And so, it was decided: Mary Magdalene became Mario, the Italian rent boy.
Time-bomb numero tre.
Rehearsals went well and once the new term was underway, we started selling tickets and I put out a press release. The response was instant and overwhelming.
I was delighted. Every local newspaper pounced and local radio wanted an immediate interview. It was only slowly – stupidly slowly – that I realised that what I thought might be a mildly contentious but wonderfully refreshing interpretation, was actually an unholy triple H-bomb.
Headline condemnation, major features, sequential letters columns and damning photographs of a cross-sexed crucifixion emblazoned the local rags. They were followed up by headlines in the National Press: Jessica Christ play upsets Catholics, said The Times. Catholic students make Jesus a she, said The Daily Mail. Well at least they had more decorum than: Christ play in gender bender shock (Lancashire Evening Post).
The College Principal, Kevin Quigley, went into lock-down in his office as he fielded phone calls from around the world: the far side of the Atlantic, New Zealand, Australia, and all over Europe; including Rome. I too, took my share. This went on for three solid days, and when it seemed to stop, it didn’t stop. The letters and calls kept coming.
Not all the communications were in opposition, but some were vitriolic to the point of eternal damnation. I was told on the telephone where I would be spending my afterlife.
The three time-bombs had exploded. In the eyes of nominally Christian correspondents, time-schlepping the life of Christ from the past to the future was ‘changing the Bible’, turning Jesus into Jessica generated ‘utter disgust’, and making Mary into Mario was evidently attention-seeking on my part. In response to the latter charge I can only say that my craving for relentless personal persecution has never been so comprehensively satisfied.
One Lancashire Evening Post correspondent accused me of not only creating the salacious, but also of being bad at maths. It had not offended ‘one or two’ people as I had mused, but at least 100 in the urban district of Fulwood alone. Another letter writer declared the production ‘nothing but sacrilegious’; and someone else asked the people of Preston if I was ‘concussed’. That incorrigible correspondent of indeterminate gender Name and Address Supplied said the whole thing sounded like ‘Women’s Lib gone mad’.
The mob was on the move. The College was informed that if the production was not cancelled people would assemble to pray at the gates during the performance. The exact intention of the prayers was not divulged. We checked the integrity of the lightning conductors.
Matters went from bad to worse. The dispatch of the free newspaper (The Citizen) with its blasphemous front-page headline heralded further plagues. More complaints flooded in.
Rosie’s family and fellow worshippers were none too pleased to hear her being interrogated on the radio and see her pilloried in the press. The Baháʼí Faith local community contacted me. Of all those who expressed concerns, the Baháʼí representatives were by far the most considerate in their tone. We broke biscuits together. After some deliberation, Rosie decided she could not continue in the principal role, though she did remain part of the cast.
It came to pass that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Lancaster felt obliged to intervene and duly sent for the College Principal. Kevin Quigley prepared to face the sacred music. He recruited the Chair of the Governors, John Cowdall, and Deputy Chair, Frank Hartley, to accompany him; three wise men if ever there were such. Diligent textual scholars will have noted that the latter mentioned shares a surname with your scribe. Frank was my cousin. He was also a former drama teacher. He was also our best hope.
Before setting off for the heart of the Bishopric, governor cousin Frank had the good grace to wander into a rehearsal and by chance, or sublime intersection, we happened to be running the most powerful scene of all: the crucifixion.
The reincarnated Jessica – now miraculously portrayed by Michelle Lawton – was being thrashed senseless to Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones before being pinioned on our 2030 vaguely cruciform ‘death machine’, and then painfully spouting a verbal cocktail of Christ’s most compassionate directives.
Following Jessica’s expiration, ‘Mario’ and others tenderly laid her in the tomb while dance virtuoso Isabel Clegg expressed her spiritual passing to the heavenly but earthy Hymn to Her by the Pretenders.
It was a week and a half before our opening night. As cousin Francis left the room, I begged his intercession. “Just get me ten days!” I pleaded. Frank was clearly moved and motivated and gave me the double thumbs-up as he left for Lancaster.
The Bishop cancelled the show.
The new testament of termination was evangelised and hit the triumphant headlines sending the outraged public back into the wilderness of contentment. Meanwhile we continued rehearsing – in secret.
The deal had been done that the show would be publicly cancelled but would privately continue. Somehow both the Bishop and the Principal failed to tag the private arrangements on the end of the public notification. The Press were satisfied with their half-truth; the public were pacified by the view from the moral high ground. It was ever thus.
The show went ahead unchanged, but admission was by invitation only. The way to be invited was to ask a member of the cast for a ticket.
We played to full houses on all three nights.
Applause was ecstatic.
Each performance was followed by a public discussion chaired by one of the wise men. No one complained, or spoke against the show.
I sat at the rear of the auditorium on each night. One person walked out half way through the middle performance; I have no idea why.
So, despite tasting the forbidden fruit and being cast out we still managed to stage our contentious creation. We battened down the hatches and awaited Armageddon.
Nothing happened. Not a whisper, not a murmur. To our great surprise the sun still rose, the tides still turned twice a day, and the lightning conductor was not needed. Mind you, people had not prayed at the gate.
The greatest irony in this trauma was that the dialogue in the production was fiercely faithful to the texts on which it was based: the Catholic Gospels and the Chester Mystery Plays. Those two sources pivot on the execution of the central character, Jesus Christ, on a charge, instigated by the local religious authorities, of – blasphemy!
We updated some of the language, but other than that, we only made three significant changes: two gender swaps and a time shift. The change that caused the greatest offence was making the Messiah female. Why did I sanction it? The purpose of theatre is to pose questions.
Does a message of unconditional love have a different meaning depending on which gender is delivering it? That was the question we posed.
We got our answer.
It can be justifiably claimed that everyone who took part in this production had their faith strengthened. Not their faith in a divinity, nor their faith in religious dogma, and certainly not their faith in public opinion; but their faith in the power of theatre.
After watching the show, one colleague who held a position of some responsibility and who had sat somewhat uncomfortably, but firmly, on the fence during the debacle, sighed with relief and said to me: “Don’t know what all the fuss was about. It was just a bunch of kids putting on a show.”
He was right, but it was a show that was so weighty in its significance that it sent ripples right around the world, and deemed so dangerous that it had to be officially condemned.
Those who called for its execution got their death; but on the first, second and third day, it rose again.
The Production Programme
2 thoughts on “The Transgender Mysteries”
Love this. x