Christianity is a bit of a grey area. To put it mildly. Millions of people all over the world feel very strongly about this religion – both for and against it – but is it that easy? Can you simply put yourself in one camp? Imagine listening to a sermon by the Head Pastor of your church; a person heavily respected – a person whose passionate opinions you have based much of your beliefs on. Then suddenly your Pastor backtracks, leaving you and your companions unsure of what is and isn’t real. If you can’t trust him then can you trust yourself and everything you live by?
Lucas Hnath’s The Christians doesn’t just look at the religion, it breaks it apart bit by bit in a provocative fashion. It doesn’t aim to spark controversy or alarm but it does introduce and formulate discussion. Hnath’s script is remarkably philosophical and often difficult to get one’s head around but it always remains specific.
Prior to the production kicking off, one can be forgiven for having initially dubious expectations. The audience are treated to a very pleasant looking choir sitting calmly, waiting for something to happen. It’s all a bit Sister Act, especially once they start really going for it. I expected them to come down and take each and everyone one of us by the hand, before running out and taking to the streets. William Gaminara’s Pastor Paul steps on to the stage with three other senior members of his congregation before welcoming his fictional followers into prayer. He breaks his talk into sections, concluding on a story detailing the gruesome, yet heroic death of a ‘non-believer’. Stefan Adegbola’s Associate Pastor Joshua, saved by Christianity and his leader’s guidance some years ago believes that someone, despite such altruistic deeds should go to hell, if they do not believe in God. The Pastor disagrees.
Adegbola’s Joshua could potentially be difficult to comprehend for some audience members, particularly if you’re an Atheist. He believes in Hell in the literal sense, whereas Gaminara’s Paul believes that “guilt, feeling bad about what you’ve done” is a deep place of torment. This idea of God’s Law is returned to time and time again during their argument and this idea of physical places – of physical beings that await us. What is so interesting is the progressive and “exciting new direction” that Paul takes us all towards. When a Congregant (the fantastic Lucy Ellinson) asks him difficult questions about hell: “If there’s no punishment, why should you be good? If there’s no hell, what about someone like Hitler? Where does he go?” His answer: “He goes to Heaven as well”, is controversial but opens not only this production but the very essence of religion up. What really happens when we die? Are we the people we were on earth or do we transcend to something else entirely – free from humanity and everything we have ever known or felt? Accepting our own sell-by date is something we as a species generally find difficult to grasp and no longer having what makes us us even harder.
The cast are spectacular. They are all so utterly convincing that it is easy to fall into this fictional world they have created. As Gaminara’s wife, Jaye Griffiths is on stage the whole time but is given a small amount of dialogue. She gives us everything as a devoted woman that also holds much conviction and independence in her position within a fragmented marriage. Director Christopher Haydon arranges the group in front of microphones with Gaminara often – at a glimpse, breaking away and narrating. It’s so simple but Haydon gives the script room to speak and us, the room to listen.
If you’ve an interest in philosophy or the dynamics of religion then The Christians will have you on tenterhooks. Do we need to think about life after death – this much? I think so, but only in order to make sense of humanity – of our reason. This is quite heavy but we need to ask questions and we should have it presented to us like this.
The Christians plays the Gate Theatre until 3 October. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website. Photo by Iona Firouzabadi.