It’s a slow burner, The Christians, but have a little faith and this new show from the team behind 2013’s biggest festival hit, Grounded, will take you somewhere interesting.
The theatre’s turned into an American church – all neon crucifixes and piped muzac accompanying hymns sung by a large, purple-robed choir. Everyone speaks into microphones, a key stylistic tick of all-American pastors that here gets rolled out for every character, meaning even the most private crisis of faith is amplified – literally as well as, arguably, metaphorically.
The choir settles down onstage for a sermon from Pastor Paul (Williams Gaminara, a superbly controlled performance). They’re celebrating – the huge church has finally paid off its construction debts. And yet he fears there’s a great “crack” in its very foundation; he’s had a religious revelation which he wants to share. And it is pretty darn seismic: there is no hell. God loves all, Christ will save all, there’s welcome in heaven for all. The bible has simply been, uh, misinterpreted on this matter over the millennia.
Pastor Paul is hugely attractive in this; Gaminara nails the slow, measured but warmly faux-colloquial rhetoric of the American church. His message seems wonderful: no petty divisions between man and fellow man, love and salvation for everyone!
But it produces a schism in the church – an associate pastor walks out, taking some of the congregation with him. Rather than heal a crack, Pastor Paul has ripped it wide open. Soon, other members of the church – including his own wife – are questioning this doctrinal shift.
This religious searching forms the nub of Lucas Hnath’s stately, sly play: if there is no hell, does that really mean everyone goes to heaven whatever they did in this life – even Hitler? How is that fair? Can you really be allowed to just pick and choose what bits of a religion to believe? And – in the case of his unconvinced, heartbroken wife (a subtle Jaye Griffiths) - how the hell do you love someone in this life who you really believe will be going to hell in the next?
Pastor Paul flounders, and then Jenny, an impoverished, unassuming, squeaky single mom (Lucy Ellison; terrific) points out nervously that he only had his revelation after they’d dug deep to help pay for the church building... Suddenly, the cracks spread across his personal morality too. But The Christians isn’t crudely critical of faith – rather, it slowly throws up thorny issues that plague the faithful.
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