Pope Joan: A play that gives a view from the pew


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The Independent Culture

Some people think that church itself is quite a performance, but in deciding to host a run of a new play in our church building, which is less than 5 minutes from Shaftesbury Avenue, it might look to the casual observer as if we are making a bid to diversify our activities and compete with our neighbours. In fact, historically, the Christian Church has been nervous of performance, not least within its liturgy, in case the dramatic interpretation of the words of Christ or the embellishment of Scripture in music is in itself idolatrous, drawing attention away from the invisible presence of God.

St James's Church Piccadilly is hosting a new play, written by first-time playwright Louise Brealey, who is perhaps better known for playing Molly in the BBC TV series Sherlock than as a writer, and performed and directed by members of the National Youth Theatre. The play concerns the legend of the only female Pope in Western Christianity. Joan is said to have been a woman in the 9th or 11th century who, in common with other celebrated female saints of the first century AD, bound her breasts, cut her hair and joined a monastery in order to study Scripture like the men. She is said to have given birth to a child, which event revealed her unequivocally to be female and the crowd in the Roman streets set upon her and killed her.

For the majority of people who live their lives without reference to organised religion, the topic of gender and religion is both a reason to be infuriated with the church and a reason to dismiss it. For those who do go to church, different denominations deal with the subject in different ways: in the Church of England we'll still be debating the extent of women's religious authority into 2016. This new play isn't so much a denominational comment about the papacy, rather a contemporary re-telling of part of our common Christian backstory. As the writer says, she is not interested so much in whether or not the story itself is true as why people wanted it to be true. It is a story of personal courage, of institutional power, of deception, of religious motivation and the risks of following your conscience. By hosting this play at St James's Church, we want to open our doors to a generation of young people who will bring their own artistry to bear on a story that is part of our history and we expect them to bring a fresh perspective to contemporary debate about the respective roles of women and men in public life. A perspective that we expect will both challenge and unsettle us. And we do this in a contemporary context where the meaning and place of religion is debated every day.

Pope Joan is at St James's Church, Piccadilly, London W1 (www.nyt.org.uk/pope-joan) 31 August to 15 September