Festival Reflections

By Rev Brian Cooper (given in St. Mark's on 28th August 2016)

The 2016 Fringe programme had fifteen pages of Cabaret, 130 pages of Comedy. At ten per page that makes some 1,300 comedians here over the past month; surely more than enough to banish any dour expressions from Edinburgh folk. Then by contrast there were 170 Children's Shows, with such splendid names as Dr Frankenstein's Spooky Disco, and Naughty Cat and Cheesy Moon. There were ninety-nine Dance Shows and 124 Musicals (I did not know there could be so many, but did recognise Cabaret, Bugsy Malone and Godspell), around 500 Concerts, forty Exhibitions and over 1000 Theatre shows of all kinds. The Fringe Press Office told me the grand total was 3269 different shows and events, and 50,266 performances! That Was 2016 Fringe That Was, and St Mark's was very much part of it, hosting eighty-five performances.

Add the International Festival, with its 'high culture' offerings of ballet, drama, music and opera, and the Art Festival, with a world-class Surrealism exhibition at The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and we realise just how very privileged we are to live in this Festival city. It is not only so in August. Earlier, we had the Jazz and Film Festivals, and earlier still, the Science Festival and Festival of Middle East Peace and Spirituality. Here we can enjoy an around-the-year Festival.

Now, a question which may seem startling and incongruous. What would Jesus make of all these festivals? Yet perhaps it is not so incongruous: Jesus lived amid the around-the-year cycle of the ancient Jews' great religious festivals [detailed in Leviticus 23]. They included a Harvest Festival of wheat and meat offerings, Pentecost celebrating the Law being given to Moses [in Christianity it marks the coming of the Holy Spirit], and the Feast of Tabernacles, when the Jews remembered their time in the wilderness by re-creating portable sanctuaries with palm and willow branches [a custom devout Jews observe to this day]. The most famous festival, Passover, remembrance of deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Jesus transformed into celebration of his own life, coming death and future kingdom, inaugurating the Christian Eucharist.

These Jewish festivals were times of sacrifices, worship, celebration, community, even music. Pentecost included the Feast of Trumpets and rest from all menial labour. The Gospels glimpse Jesus observing the festivals, yet we sense he was not uncritical. For him religious rituals only had meaning if expressing true worship of the heart.

Of course, these festivals were not 'theatre'. Was Jesus himself aware of, even in contact with, the world of theatre so important in Greek and Roman culture? In his landmark book Jesus the Master Builder, Dr. Gordon Strachan argues Jesus did have experience of theatre. Only four miles north of his home town, Nazareth, was the old city of Sepphoris, rebuilt over the first twenty-five years of Jesus' life. Strachan shows that Jesus, as a carpenter and builder, is very likely to have worked on its great building projects - a great theatre was the most spectacular - and probably attended theatre performances. For significantly, he used the word 'hypocrites' to condemn Jewish religious leaders who made a public show of their religion but were insincere. Hypocrites - 'hupocrites' - a Greek word, not a Hebrew or Aramaic one, means a stage actor, a performer wearing a mask. Gospeller Matthew [6. 2] records Jesus saying ‘When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised.’ For ultra-orthodox Jews who rejected all Hellenistic culture, this was a double insult, for theatre was no part of traditional Jewish life.

The use of drama by the medieval Church to communicate the Christian message to an illiterate population was a key originating factor in the development of theatre in Britain and continental Europe. The first known medieval playwright was a German nun, Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim [10th century], with six plays on Christian themes. Groups of wandering players performed Bible stories on carts and portable stages, and in cathedrals and churches: these were the 'Miracle' and 'Mystery' plays. Scenic effects became ever more elaborate and realism was emphasized. Actors playing demons wore wolves' skins, and sometimes actors almost died through over realistic enactments of the Crucifixion. 'Cycles' of these religious dramas such as the famous York Mysteries were staged at great English cathedrals, and have been revived in modern times. With the Reformation, Protestantism in 16th century stopped all theatrical presentations of Christian themes. The spectacular flowering of theatre in the age of Shakespeare was separate from the Church, but had evolved from Church-based origins.

Fringe 2016 had at least twenty explicitly faith-related productions, and I chose three: the play Still Here at St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Richard Holloway on his new book A Little History of Religion at St Andrew's and St George's Church, and the drama, Remember Edith Cavell at Palmerston Place Church.

On a makeshift stage in a tent venue in the cathedral grounds, Still Here highlighted the plight of the thousands of African and Middle Eastern migrants in the squalor of camps around Calais - the 'Calais Jungle' - desperate for asylum, or simply, escape into UK. Christian playwright Rachel Partington took some food supplies there just before Christmas 2015 and met a young refugee from Eritrea, who had made a makeshift church. ‘I promised to bring back his story’. Fleeing persecution of the Church, (the young refugee) trekked across the desert for days to reach Khartoum, where he mystically ‘saw the light of the Holy Spirit’, then made it to Libya and a packed vessel to Sicily. ‘Some people died in the sea. We kept singing; it was like a prayer.’ The Nigerian actor playing the Eritrean unflinchingly expressed his intense desperation. The in-your-face finale has the French police demolishing the church as they cleared much of the camp to 're-house' the refugees. Sponsored by the Church of England Mission Department, this grimly enthralling drama was an urgent call to faith communities to be the 'voice for the voiceless' of Calais and elsewhere, with its ragged child puppet challenging state and society for compassionate action for the many unaccompanied child refugees.

The Rt Rev Richard Holloway, former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, is a well-known and often controversial writer on religion. He reflected on key themes across many faiths from his latest work. I particularly noted the following. Religion originated ‘because of humanity's puzzlement over its own existence’, seeking to answer 'Who created everything?', 'Why are we here?', 'Where are we going after death?' and similar perennial mysteries. ‘Humans are the only animals who seem to have this religious sense’, he stated, citing animals mourn their dead but don't bury them. A distinctive feature of religions was the role of prophets and seers claiming to hear 'voices' and see 'visions'. Were such purely human phenomena, coming from within the individuals themselves, or did they come from 'the Other', to which such people were tuned in, thus indicating the existence of another reality, a spiritual Beyond? He was sympathetic to the latter view. He ascribed the presence of ‘much angry fundamentalist religion’, in the Middle East as a response to Western interventions [in my view, omitting other political, socio-economic and theological factors], and its prevalence in USA to vehement rejection of contemporary social trends. Faiths had to adapt or be consigned to ‘the scrapheap of religions’, but he stressed the ‘staying-power’ of Roman Catholicism, due to its centralised structure and doctrinal authority tempered by ‘much variety at the local level’. Welcoming the weakening of institutional religion in Western Europe by secular forces – ‘it can do less harm’ - he said it should focus on 'positives', providing community, encouraging altruism and creating beauty (oddly, not mentioning God!). I was disappointed not to be able to ask this question: where Christianity is really growing and is most vibrant - in Africa, China, Latin America, Russia and parts of USA - it is predominantly evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist or very traditional, so is this era 'the twilight of liberal religion?'. Perhaps an answer next time.

With media deeming Team GB's Olympic medallists 'heroes', it was salutary to recall the true meaning of heroism, as about courage and sacrifice.

The execution by German firing squad in 1915 of British nurse Edith Cavell was an atrocity that sent shockwaves of horror and outrage across Europe and America. Serving as matron of a Red Cross hospital in occupied Brussels, she tended wounded Germans without hesitation or discrimination: ‘Nursing knows no frontiers.’ But she also cared secretly for fugitive British and other Allied soldiers, and, fully aware of the danger, further defied German military regulations by joining a network enabling many to escape to neutral Holland. Although not a German citizen, a court-martial condemned her to death for 'treason, assisting the enemy', instead of the expected imprisonment. When her body was repatriated post 1918, she was accorded a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, then re-buried in Norwich Cathedral.

To mark the 2015 centenary, the cathedral commissioned David Robinson of the Christian company, Searchlight Theatre, to write and stage there a commemorative drama. Re-staged for the Fringe, Remember Edith Cavell was a memorably powerful and at times deeply moving theatre experience, re-creating key events in ninety minutes of sustained intensity. Torn between ‘pity and hatred’ for the German invaders, she tends their bleeding feet. ‘I must have no bitterness’ Steeled by her deep Anglican faith, she calmly decides to risk all by helping Allied soldiers. Under questioning, she truthfully admits her activities, but her 'confession' is warped to worsen the crime; facing death, she re-affirms trust in God with trembling defiance.

Searchlight's six-member cast, with Rebecca Rogers bringing great dignity to the central role, made the play a worthy tribute to a true British heroine, rightly remembered in these World War One commemorative years for her dedication to all humanity. Her famous declaration, ‘patriotism is not enough', rings out from her monument, near Trafalgar Square, in London.

Copyright - Brian Cooper - 2016