The medieval vernacular English ‘mysteries’ or ‘passions’ (specifically focussing on the crucifixion of Jesus) connected a Latinate church to an uneducated population. They played mostly on holy days: Corpus Christi, Easter. Sometimes professional troupes would perform, but more importantly, whole communities would perform to themselves. Sometimes the whole bible would be told in a single day, dawn til dusk, by perhaps hundreds of performers, young and old. Or perhaps that’s an overexcited fantasy of scholars with manuscripts but little extratextual evidence.
Regardless in these texts we find lazy soldiers making a hash job of hanging Jesus on the cross in the York Cycle. We have contemporary oaths and references to contemporary everyday items. Joseph is mocked as an old cuckold. Even in Shakespeare we find the character of Herod was still known for the opportunity he afforded amateurs to overact in the provinces. These texts not only rehearsed the major myth of the Christian worldview – the creator’s atonement with his people, but also recorded, celebrated and reified their rural English culture.
The new Tricycle Young Company attempts to refashion the medieval passion play for an ostensibly secular society. The new commission is written by Suhayla El-Bushra for the Tricycle Young Company of 19-25 year-olds, who also presented 6 of this year’s NT Connections plays and a devised piece with Press Road as part of last week’s Takeover Festival. El-Bushra wrote last year’s Pigeons for the Royal Court’s Open Court season, and also contributed to the Bush’s 66 Books back in 2011 with a response to 2 Peter – False Prophets. Multiculturalism, extremism, religion, and authority – she is clearly well placed to write a play exploring religious themes in Britain today, but that isn’t quite what The Kilburn Passion does.
El-Bushra’s process began with the company members, getting to know the ins and outs of their lives and, down to the colour of their bedroom walls, and uses the large cast size to create a sweeping snapshot of young Kilburn residents through monologues and scenes. The success of this is in its specificity – a man selling iPhone cases, a seething bus driver, two sisters who have inherited a salon, a kleptomaniac shop assistant. This first half of the play only jars when it veers into stereotype: must the porn-addicted bloke work in IT?
Little odd moments start to flirt with the biblical narrative – a unexpected baby, a miraculous vision, and a strange man in trackies offering uncanny advice and oranges. Around the halfway mark I am certain that these are aesthetic touchstones, tickling the synapses, and that in fact these momentary flashes of so many lives are establishing a new metanarrative – not the agony God’s relationship to his people, but the agony of individual’s distance from a metropolitan community. No one seems to be connecting, hearing, reaching out, until the handsome young artist dances with the handsome young iPhone cover salesman. Ah – human connection! This is what the cultural document of the passion play is all about.
In the second half the strange tracksuited man with his self-help advice moves to the centre of the story, and in his struggles to connect, makes an action of self sacrifice. It is, when divorced from New Testament connotations, an overly familiar action, a well-trodden sub-trope of what is basically the definition of hero in Western culture. A photocopy of a photocopy. Without the metaphysical import that a religious narrative would give it, even self-sacrifice can lose power.
The final section, which cements the El-Bushra’s imagining of the Passion as a cultural document, has the cast seem to break character as they relate how this event has changed them all. They laugh as they realise that some of them are still awful. They grin at the unlikeliness of their neat endings. They both accept and distance themselves from the moralistic form. They are both the earnest players and the skeptical audience. Then they do a dance, and like the earlier dance, director Emily Lim makes it joyful but purposeful. It’s about the insane connections that are created between people effortlessly, the awful club dance moves (even the macarena) blurring into a fluid, physical, happy connection, between one and the crowd.
It’s closed now, but the Young Company should take over more often. And in the meantime, they should play this for weeks. Until Easter at least. In the street. On pageant wagons. And then we should write our own passions.