One of the least discussed, yet most consequential liturgical innovations of the last century is the use of the microphone. There are two of them in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, designer Oliver Townsend has them flanking either side of the big crucifix as if the unnamed persons in the Gospel of Luke who were crucified along side Jesus.
The question, here symbolically raised in Lucas Hnath’s eighty minute play that ‘depicts a typical American megachurch fractured by a dispute over salvation and damnation’ is who is the Penitent Thief: Associate Pastor Joshua, who will serve once more in Pastor Paul’s church only if he can disprove the existence of hell (“I can’t show you the absence of something”) or Pastor Paul himself, who, after raising the money needed to pay off the house of worship’s debts, drops a theological bombshell on his unsuspecting ecclesial community?
Lucas Hnath, the son of a minister, grew up in an evangelical church and expected that he might follow in his mother’s footsteps. Instead, he has swapped the metaphorical pulpit for another kind of parabolic theatrical stage (other plays include Isaac’s Eye and A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay of the death of Walt Disney) and although the play takes a serious look at contemporary American Christianity, the playwright’s own beliefs are off limits. His introductory essay on the piece infers that thematically, The Christians is about people who go to a church to try and see something that is difficult to see, which is sometimes, in that place, made visible. Like Theatre. But, it has nothing to do with his own beliefs.
It has however, something to do with interpretation. Which is where the microphones come in. Microphones allow preachers to be more softly spoken, to act like mobile TV presenters no longer chained to the static pulpit, they do not amplify the voice but make a digital copy which is sent to a loudspeaker, which then produces a similar sound. What’s the message of the microphone? Here, in this play, as Pastor Paul and Pastor Joshua, in front of their stunned congregation (tonight made up of the tuneful West and South London Choir) battle over doctrinal interpretation down their microphones as if knights about to take up swords against each other, it becomes impossible, even in the Gate’s small space, to understand exactly the source of their voices. We can ‘see’ where they are coming from of course, but we cannot ‘hear’ the direction from which they are coming. Imagine if this were indeed a megachurch and that one were far back by the entrance – it would be hard to work out the source of the voices at all. Thus the voices are disembodied, transcendental even.
It may be that the plot of the play, made emotionally complicated by Lucy Ellison’s sincere congregational member, is deceptively simple, its power though, lies in its investigation into hermeneutics. Who is having a crisis of faith? William Gaminara’s enigmatic Paul or Lucy Ellison’s destroyed and lost congregant? What is the play questioning – Pastor Paul’s particular interpretations and amplification of the self, the mistake of making the Gospel into his own image or Stefan Adegbola’s intense Joshua, who unquestioningly accepts its proclamations about eternal damnation or eternal salvation? And is there a deeper motive at work? When the congregant questions Pastor Paul over his acceptance of her own financial contribution to ease the church’s debts whilst knowing full well that she relies on food stamps, the unmasking or direct confrontation causes director Christopher Haydon to direct William Gaminara to metaphorically drop the mic, and speak in normal soft tones. The same when she gets to the heart of the doctrinal conflict by asking “Is Hitler in heaven too?” Similarly, with the same question of responsibility on its lips though this time not between Pastor and congregant but between man and wife, the microphone is also sometimes abandoned as Paul and his wife, who Jaye Griffiths portrays as severely conflicted by her doctrinal beliefs and her love for the man that is now undermining them, work out what this means for their relationship which was, as is inferred at the top of the play, founded on the “uncontrollable urge to communicate”, “but I find the distance insurmountable.”
The play’s simple schematic form also reveals a set of duels and head to heads which nobody wins. Joshua and Paul, Paul and the Elder (played with magnificent quiet poise by David Calvitto) Paul and the Congregant and Paul and his Wife. And there is an unseen presence running throughout the play – the Church Board of Elders, who, we are reassured, run the megachurch like ‘a massive corporation” – are they somehow the omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient invisible force that may have replaced God? This idea is never brought to fruition by Lucas Hnath but it is surely hinted at.
Already having received American productions, where the scale of the sets seem to achieve a typical sense of American feeling for the ‘mega’ or ‘supersize’ Christopher Haydon’s production feels scaled down to give a more British appeal. The use of different community choirs, quite obviously un-American and less zealous, also adds weight to the sense we are seeing a British reinterpretation of our own kind of evangelicalism. In the Gate’s small space, we could easily be in an ex-pub in Camberwell, or a shop front in Brixton.
What initially appears as a depiction of an ecclesial community literally fracturing and breaking up before our eyes is something else though: a look at how we are so ready to interpret all that we read or hear or see as an extension and projection of ourselves. Being able to imagine the opposite of ourselves, being able to include other opinions and interpretations and exist in a world where ambiguity exists all around us, seems to be the drive of the piece. And it’s a difficult thing, as Lucas Hnath shows us with Paul and his wife’s attempt to reconcile each other to the new ‘other’ now presented before them. And there is no answer to the ambiguity, except trying to find a way to live peacefully with it.