THE CHRISTIANS – Edinburgh Fringe

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A TAINTED HALLELUJAH

Hail a bracingly, triumphantly, intelligently unfashionable play, and Christopher Haydon of the Gate Theatre for directing and premiering it here. Lucas Hnath’s subject is religion: true believers, theologically agonized, submitting personal happiness and relationships to a deeper philosophical argument. Not in the 17th century, not in militant jihadism, but right now in modern America.

We are in one of those immense Pentecostalist churches, where a choir of 25 in purple cassocks sways to a boppy gospel opener, happy-faced, urging us to catch our soul on fire. It’s a community, a certainty, a shared life. Having grown from a storefront assembly to a vast thousands-strong church, they have just paid off the building debt.But Pastor Paul (William Gaminara) is a charismatic, commanding figure with a new message. Agonized by a colleague’s bland assurance that everyone who doesn’t accept Jesus goes to hell (even, notably, a heroic Muslim lad who gave his life to save his sister) he asked God for guidance and was told that there is no Hell. No Satan: it is the wickedness in humanity which must be challenged, with love and a promise of salvation. He says that the judgmental assumptions of his church only draws them apart from the love of their sinful neighbours.
To a sophisticate in religion, no problem: the concept of the virtuous pagan, and of damnation as a willed, determined self-separation from God, is common enough (read C.S.Lewis’ The Great Divorce). But to this simple-hearted faithful congregation it is dynamite, just as even thinner theological arguments ripped apart Europe five centuries ago. The associate Pastor (Stefan Adegbola) challenges the heresy and walks out; others follow. The rebel’s “You are not my brother” shatters like a falling icicle on the cheerful bright-lit podium where the protagonists debate on microphones. Out of church, an Elder casts doubt on the pastor’s wisdom in allowing the schism, not least for financial reasons; but he stands firm, rejecting the church’s old culture of “contempt” for non-members.
Is he a saint in his impracticality? Or is he something else? A congregant rises to ‘testify’ with a painfully personal speech. She is Lucy Ellinson, who astonished in the Bush’s GROUNDED: once again this remarkable actor demonstrates her ability to stand still and yet emit electrical pulses of emotion and meaning so violent that the world tilts around her. Sister Jenny is just a poor single mother, living on food stamps but still paying her tithes, needing her church community but agonized with sincerity over this frightening new concept that “even Hitler”, even a child murderer, might be saved from hell.

She has another accusation too, still more damning. A confrontation with his wife shakes the pastor even more, with her flung accusation that “you’re saying that absolute tolerance involves intolerance of the intolerant‘. Breezy modern atheists may scratch their heads at religious absurdity. I have no idea where the author himself stands. But the sincerity and intelligence of the production opens a window into a world too often mocked, too little understood.

http://www.edfringe.com to 30 August
rating four     

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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