This week I am involved in a play that brings together all three of these blog strands – Architecture, Theology and Theatre. As part of the Michaelhouse Festival in Cambridge, Cameo Theatre Company are staging the premiere of the stage version of Nick Warburton’s Witness, directed by Rex Walford. The play, based on Luke’s gospel, opens tomorrow and runs to Sunday 21st. For better or worse I have the part of Jesus, which has proved a hugely challenging, but also a very rewarding, experience.
Michaelhouse is a great example of the sensitive introduction of modern use and life into an ancient building. The conversion, by Shona Mackay of Archimage, uses modern materials – a modern spiral stair to a modern balcony – and traditional materials – oak, stone – in a modern way. No hint here of pastiche, or “Churchwarden’s Gothic”. There is therefore an elegance and clarity to the building – it is clear what is old and what is not, and the enjoyment of this contrast creates a lyrical space with a firm sense of its history. The conversion created a cafe in the nave, which also hosts exhibitions, while the chancel retains its collegiate seating and is used for services, concerts etc; a glazed screen in the chancel arch creates a degree of separation between the two spaces.
The staging of the play makes use of both of these main spaces – the cafe for the first part (Galilee) and the chancel for the second part, where the action moves to Jerusalem. The two spaces have sharply contrasting characters, and this is used in the production to good effect. The cafe balcony, for example is used for the temptation scene, and the stair up it for the naming of the disciples, the beatitudes etc. Many of the key scenes of the second part are staged in the central aisle between the pews, which brings the audience very close to the action – the triumphal entry, Gethsemane, Peter’s denial, Emmaus etc.
Theologically the writing is (in my humble opinion) fantastic. We have the added advantage that the playwright is also in the cast, playing Pilate, allowing for detailed comments on the script. Nick has said that part of the original vision for the radio play, which was the precursor of the stage version, was that the casual listener who happened upon it would be drawn into the flow of the story, without the obstruction of overtly religious language. The ordinariness of the group around Jesus, including a number of women (as named by Luke), stands in powerful contrast to the import of the story.
Seating at Michaelhouse is limited to 70, which is the capacity of the chancel once space is set aside for musicians and lighting rig; so the show has been sold out for some weeks.