Edinburgh Fringe 2023
A man escapes an organised and controlling religion after it has claimed 30 years of his life and cost him his relationship with his family.
Our host, dressed casually, with a leather briefcase tucked under his arm, smiles genially and addresses each of the audience in turn. “Hello, I’m Richard – what’s your name?” and then “What makes you happy?”. “My cat”, “cake”, “him pulling goofy faces” are some of the answers. It’s only when he has spoken with everyone that he takes out a notebook and pen from the briefcase and begins to make notes about each person – “X likes cats – no spiritual connection…Y likes cake – no spiritual connection”. This is the information gathering process for the Jehovah’s Witnesses that enables them to literally separate the sheep from the goats – and target those they think they will be able to convert. I found it chilling.
It turns out that Richard Dale has been in the Jehovah’s Witnesses since he was a small child, as his mother was a devoted member of the “fellowship”. His father was very much opposed to it and as such was treated as if he were Satan. Almost from the point of recognizing his surroundings, Richard’s thoughts, feelings, decisions have all been controlled by this organization.
This continues for thirty years. At one point, working with a male colleague, he realizes he has feelings of great affection for him – but knows equally that this is an abomination in the eyes of the church. He is interviewed by the elders and confesses they shared a bed, but no sexual contact happened. He is “disfellowed” but not shunned and is told he can have no further contact with his friend. He accepts the judgement and continues to serve – knocking door to door, meeting people in the street, looking for converts,
It is what happens next chronologically, though not in the order in which events are presented in the piece, that changes his whole world. Sent to China, undercover, to try to spread the word of the church, he has an encounter with a man, who takes him to his apartment and invites him into the shower with him. It is a Damascene conversion and the scales fall from Richard’s eyes. He escapes the church, but not without great personal cost. Years of his life have been sacrificed and he is estranged from his family.
He has been out of the church for a few years now. Having attended theatre school in France, he tells us at the end of the performance that he is now “Awake, gay – and I appear to have written a play”. It’s not in any way self-congratulatory – indeed this is as close to real-time confessional as I’ve ever got – but it is in its own way fascinating and moving. It’s certainly brave, because Richard has had to change his identity and is still trying to hold on to some sort of relationship with his family.
His character work, moving between the church elders especially is solid and the writing is clear and unfussy – I can see that as his confidence grows, so will the piece. There are certainly powerful and emotionally affecting moments – naturally as this is Richard’s truth – and all the more meaningful as adherents to the faith he left refer to it as “The Truth”. An illuminating and courageous performance.