IN THE words of Hamlet “the play’s the thing” and plays, drama, liturgy and worship were the things that came under consideration at a conference at the Palace in Chichester
Holy Play: Liturgy As Theatre was a one-day event for both the clergy and lay people.
The theatre side of the exploration was led by Edward Kemp, academy director of RADA, who has worked extensively in theatre and opera across the UK. He has childhood connections with Chichester Cathedral as well as professional connections with the Chichester Festival Theatre.
The church end of the discussion was provided by Father Robin Ward, principal of St Stephen’s House theological college and a member of the Society of the Holy Cross.
The event was chaired by Rev Dr Martin Warner and sponsored by The Society of St Wilfred and St Hilda.
Edward began the day with a canter through the history of theatre from its roots in Greek tragedy to the development of the mystery plays and the relationship between drama, religion, ritual and sacrifice. He introduced us to the idea of the audience compact, the concept that when we all gather in a theatre there is a complicity between us to suspend disbelief for the time we are there and allow ourselves to be transported into other worlds, stories and situations. In this way, we can believe a puppet is a horse or an actor is God and truths about our human condition can be revealed in action and reaction. Clearly, this has a bearing on our understanding of the Eucharist and is something that underlined the discussions for the rest of the day.
Father Robin explored the way liturgical reform has not necessarily brought about an enhancement of worship and that there is often a confusion about the role of the church service and its relationship to pedagogical instruction. He asked whether we gather in Christian community to be taught or to worship and pointed us to the way God seeks to break into our worship via the sacraments rather than us reaching out for him.
In the afternoon session, Edward and Robin had a discussion prompted by Bishop Martin covering a wide range of themes. Edward introduced the idea of semi-transparency where a performance can transport the audience to a different place and time than the actual physical experience in the theatre. It is interesting to apply this to our experience in church and in particular the Eucharist and its semi-transparency in relation to God.
A Q&A at the end of each session brought a wide variety of topics including the use of metaphor in our daily language and how this also might relate to the Eucharist. Discussion carried on over refreshments and lunch as everyone attending was so stimulated by the topic and themes. Hopefully, this will not be the only event of this nature as it would be wonderful to explore the relationship between suspension of disbelief as it is described in the theatre and what the opposite of this might look like for Church.
The talks and questions from the Holy Play day are all available online at https://holyplayday.weebly.com/.