Edinburgh Fringe 2015
For the last 20 years Pastor Paul has been building his church. Starting in a modest storefront, he now presides over a flock of thousands. Idolised by his followers, today should be a day for joy and celebration. But the sermon Paul is about to preach will shake the very foundations of his followers’ beliefs. As fractures spread throughout his congregation, Paul must fight to prevent his church tearing itself apart. Featuring a full-scale community choir, it asks profound questions about what we believe and why.
A wall of purple gowns greet the audience as they enter the theatre. A large community choir is tiered on the stage, and begins the performance with a slightly shaky song extolling the glories of God.
A group of church elders and the pastor appear, and the sermon begins. We are cast in the role of congregation in this American church, and we learn the background as the pastor (speaking into the mike like a true evangelical) gives thanks for this enormous church that has grown from nothing, and praises the Lord for finally bringing them out of the debt that has followed them for ten years.
What follows is the sermon that will shake the foundations of this church and call into question the nature of belief for all who are involved with the pastor. Played with panache by William Gaminara, his pastor is relatively understated, he is clearly charismatic, but is no fire and brimstone pulpit fear-monger. Instead he shares an experience which has led him to the conclusion that there is in fact no hell, and from this point, that will guide the direction of the church.
The ramifications from this decision are myriad, and faced with this schism in ideology, the church begins to fall apart. What follows is fundamentally a debate about humanity and belief, observed through the prism of religion. This play asks far more questions than it answers, and forces us to confront why we believe what we believe, and how the process of changing our mind and the minds of others can work.
It is a very skillful piece of writing by Lucas Hnath, who expertly crafts some very believable characters who manage to convey their nuanced personalities and beliefs in a small amount of stage-time. A very fine cast, who manage to avoid any caricature and do not overplay their roles, also compliments the writing. In addition to the excellent portrayal of the pastor by Gaminara, his wife, played by Jaye Griffiths, manages to demonstrate all the loss and confusion of a marriage breakdown, whilst all the while speaking into a microphone and looking into the audience.
It is interesting, as of course this play is about Christianity and hell and God, but the same questions and arguments could be applied to Islamic fundamentalism, gay marriage, and many other doctrines and beliefs. It also asks questions about our fundamental human nature; do we need to believe in hell and future punishment, as an inspiration to live well and ‘behave’, or can we not take a more kindly approach and believe that everyone is worthy of forgiveness?
The presence of a large choir onstage largely works, being able to represent in micro the mass exodus of the congregation from the church as the pastor fails to adequately defend his position. Their singing could have done with a little more rehearsal, but it provided the intended effect.
In addition to the pastor’s sympathetic yet faltering character, Lucy Ellinson played a marvelous, fragile, single mother, challenging the new direction of her church. In this small role she managed to convey a very fine balance of nerves, determination and a deep sense of having been failed by the pastor’s weak argument and pathetic apologies.
This play contains a lot within it and raises interesting questions for believers and die hard atheists alike. Seldom have I seen a play tackle theological questions without implicit critique of religion as a whole, yet this does not come across as a critique of the church and is not a play about loss of faith. It is finely written and well performed, and I will no doubt gain much from revisiting the play script in the future for further consideration.