The Lord of the Dance
At a recent meeting of the Bishops, the Archbishop of Canterbury broke off from his comments on worldwide Anglican affairs to say that, although it was completely off the subject, we should all try and get to see ‘The Mysteries’ at the Garrick Theatre. Not amongst those who would pass up any suggestion from Rowan, and finding ourselves in London at the Royal Foundation of St Katherine for our annual residential Lincoln Senior Staff meeting, off we went to witness this remarkable production.
‘The Mysteries’ are, in fact, medieval mystery plays, such as are performed all over England to this day. These particular ones originated in Chester, and bear all the hallmarks of that robust and irreverent attitude to the Bible and religion that produced the Canterbury Tales. However, here the similarities to our own homegrown efforts ends: for these Mysteries are performed by black South Africans who have their origins in the most desperately poor and deprived areas of that country. performed in English, Afrikaans and tribal dialects simultaneously, the stories of Creation, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Noah and the flood, the Nativity, the ministry, crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus are all told from the standpoint of the pitilessly poor people of Africa. God is played by a woman: and her ‘glory’ is indicated by her colourful tribal costume. However, soon God is incarnated into Jesus by the simple device of taking off the impressive costume to reveal underneath the rags of a Sowetan peasant. I can think of no more powerful treatise on God’s self-emptying as this.
The show is riven with music, dance and fine oratory: but all the instruments are ones that found in the township rubbish dumps: oil barrels become drums, corrugated tubing becomes percussion, plastic tubes become trumpets. Satan, portrayed by a young woman, becomes the snake of Eden and the cock which crowed for Peter by the simple expedient of movement.The dance is thoroughly African: joyous and infectious, and the prose is spoken with the hypnotic clicks and ‘tuts’ of tribal dialects. All of these components build up into a mesmerizing and moving rendition of the principles of the Christian Faith: most moving for me was the scene which portrayed the massacre of the innocents (a reality which many of the actors must have been close to if not actively have witnessed): four women clutching bundles of newspapers and straw became madonnas holding babies, and their murder became real in our minds and linked to the real life murders that are taking place all over Africa as we speak.
The whole of Jesus’s ministry was summoned up in one dance: Jesus, the woman, begins the gestures and shimmies of an African dance: slowly, hesitatingly and with many mistakes, the disciples join in and then, finally, get it right and the dance becomes an expression of their unity and purpose as they move in sequence. At the Resurrection, the disciples test themselves out and find that they can still dance!
There was much to take home from all of this, but primarily the deepest feeling that the wisdom of the Christian Faith is not so much to be found in fancy words, persuasive argument, glorious liturgy or academic theology, more in the way we intuitively experience its Truths in the very fabric of existence: in the dance of life.
Perhaps they should make ++Rowan a theatre critic?