‘The effect of the entire creation is perhaps best measured by occasional involuntary gasps coming from the audience…’ The Stage
‘…in turns funny, knowing and profoundly sad.’ ★★★★★ Sunday Telegraph
One of Oberon’s most recent publications is a beautiful duo of plays for one actor, written by Matthew Hurt. Believe and The Man Jesus are based on the epic stories of the Old and New Testaments, and the process of writing them forced Matthew to consider what his own belief system looked like. Though evidently inspired and moved by these biblical events, Matthew here explores the deeper question which he is always asked – ‘Are you religious?’ ‘Do you have faith?’
Believe was commissioned and first performed by Linda Marlowe 9 years ago. The Man Jesus finished a UK tour just last year. Despite the gap between these two plays the idea to put them together in a volume seemed logical: Believe is drawn from stories in the Old Testament and The Man Jesus from the Gospels of the New Testament. Also, they’re both solo plays. One for a female performer, the other for a male.
On each of the separate occasions that these plays have been produced – when Linda originally performed Believe in London and Edinburgh; when Margareta Gudmundson did Believe in Sweden; and when Simon Callow toured The Man Jesus to just about every town and village in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, I’ve been asked the inevitable question: are you religious? Working with Oberon to put these plays into a single volume, I found myself asking a variation of the question again:
What do I believe in?
When Linda first asked me to write something for her, she’d barely seen any of my work. What she had seen was not particularly accomplished. So, what was it that prompted her to take a chance on me – a young and untested playwright? What was it that gave Margareta the will and determination to painstakingly translate a play she’d never seen performed? What was it that Richard Croxford, the artistic director of the Lyric Theatre Belfast at the time, had in his head when he went along with Simon Callow’s suggestion that I have a go at writing a play about a subject as colossal as Jesus?
Directors, designers, lighting designers, stage managers, producers – the list of people who commit to something without knowing what that thing is runs long. So what is it, apart from the practical imperatives of needing a job, that enables everyone involved in creating new work to take a flying leap into the dark?
I think that thing is faith. Not faith between people and gods, but between people and people.
The belief that one person can have in another person, or in a group of people, gives the other a promethean power to do something that they might not have been able to do before. Before Linda challenged me to come up with ideas for a one-woman show, I had no intention of writing anything to do with the Bible. Similarly, I’d never thought for a moment I’d one day write about the Son of God. But once these gauntlets were thrown down, I didn’t become paralysed by feelings of inadequacy. (As I might well have done – the list of dramatists, let alone artists, who’ve worked on religious subjects is intimidating.) This was neither arrogance nor naiveté on my part. What was it then?
It was a galvanising resolve somehow implanted in me through the belief that they had in my potential. They wanted me to do it. They believed I could it. I would do it. They had faith, and gave me faith. Of course, nothing is ever that easy. Doubt pricks at you. But this is exactly when the sense of expectation – or maybe the word is hope? – that is implicit in faith, takes you by the hand and sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, leads you on. And so something is created out of nothing. This is faith as creative, not destructive.
The miracles we show in The Man Jesus all come about when Jesus unlocks a mysterious capacity in those around him: infecting his followers with an ecstasy like drunkenness at the wedding in Cana, for example. Or, as Joanna, one of Jesus’ female followers, reports when he cures her of her chronic bleeding:
“He’s just within reach and I grab the back of his garment
…He turns and asks: Who touched me?
My bleeding has stopped. I know it. For the first time in
twelve years, it’s stopped.
The men around him are urging him on, but he won’t move
Somebody touched me, he insists. I felt my power go.
It was me, I say, and it’s stopped. You healed me.
I don’t know if he knows what I’m talking about.
Your trust, he says, healed you.”
Jesus’ miraculous gift is that he somehow enables the ‘ordinary’ folk around him to contact something extraordinary that exists inside of them.
Similarly, the divine intervention in the four women’s stories in Believe isn’t external intervention at all. It’s an intervention proceeding from the God-like part within them. They may believe the hand of God to be at work, but what is really happening is that they stumble upon vast underground chambers in their inner worlds that they hadn’t previously known to be there. Worlds that are somehow simultaneously a part of them and yet outside of them, pre-supposing them.
Faith is the portal to this realm of the transpersonal. Without it, our numinous potential is denied. For me, this is a magical idea. You could almost say: a religious idea.
So, am I religious?
As long as we have faith in the potential for creativity in each other – and I mean creativity in its broadest sense – then I think the question “do you have faith?” is a more important one.
Not only do I think it’s more important, I think it’s more challenging. If you believe in God, you’re only disappointed – or not – when you take your final breath. If you choose to believe in people the risk of disappointment is constant. Rather than allow this to be a deterrent, it should be a motivation.
Towards the end of The Man Jesus, the disciple Simon Peter is fleeing Jerusalem, his life in danger because of his association with the recently executed terrorist Jesus. Throughout the play he’s been puzzled by the meaning of Jesus’ words. As he slinks back north to Galilee, the ideas that have been rattling around his mind begin to settle; finally, he starts to understand Jesus’ words as
“…fighting talk – a challenge – to enter the kingdom of which he really is the Messiah. A vast landscape lit up by the sun – all the seas glowing under the moon – a kingdom inside of me.”
This is how I understand the faith we can have in one another. Our belief in others can trigger something powerful, and potentially transformative, in them; allowing them access to the power of the kingdom within.
It’s a divine gift.