The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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May 2018

Review - The Way of the Cross

Bill Risebero

On Good Friday in 1963, in the West End, there was a single performance of Henri Ghéon’s religious drama, The Way of the Cross. Translated from the French by Frank de Jonge, this is Ghéon’s best-known play, with its deeply spiritual depiction of, and meditation on, Jesus’ last few hours on earth.

That production was directed by William Fry, who also appeared in it, along with his wife Sylvia Read, and it was Bill who in 2014 recommended the play to the Hampstead Players’ attention. Those who saw it in Hampstead Parish Church during Lent 2014 were moved by the intensity of experience offered by the small, five-person cast, in everyday clothes, on a bare stage. The director then was John Willmer, with Bill Fry advising, and this Lent John has revisited the play, with a largely different cast but with the same dedication to the play’s central message.

I like the fact that, with Bill and Sylvia as members of our church community, the Hampstead Players have been able, as it were, to enter into a tradition. Religious drama, the Hampstead Players’ original raison d’être, is an important and rewarding but difficult genre, in which Bill and Sylvia, through their Theatre Roundabout company, have been pre-eminent. It has been a privilege to learn from them and to play some part in continuing the tradition.

In our 2018 version of The Way of the Cross a reciter (Moragh Gee) told the story as the four other players (David Gardner, Judy Burgess, Derrick Hill and Annie Duarte) moved, scene by scene, through the fourteen Stations of the Cross. They spoke the words of the characters in the Passion and also of the onlookers as they commented and pondered on the action.Through their words we vividly saw the tragic violence of Christ’s final hours and were able to reflect that we are all implicated, and need redemption. The programme for the 1963 performance notes that ‘the play’s immense impact arises from its stark revelation that whatever we try or however good our intentions may be, we continue to crucify Christ in our everyday lives’.

The story was emphasised by sound and lighting, by Helen Meyer’s poignant paintings of the Stations of the Cross projected as a changing backdrop and by Neil Richardson’s powerful incidental music. The expert production team of John and Margaret Willmer and Matt Williams ensured that though the actors carried scripts in their hands (this was advertised as a ‘dramatic reading’) in every other respect it was a fully-staged production.

Carrying scripts was not a negligible factor, however. It is perhaps instructive for those who saw both this production and the one four years ago to compare the two, because they were not quite the same. Whereas in 2014 we had a dramatic, off-book performance, with strong characterisation and with what a friend described to me as an ‘edge’, the 2018 reading had a more contemplative feel. With books in hand, and heads down, devoting their full attention to the text as in a poetry reading, the actors could be more introspective, slower and quieter, offering more time for reflection. It was very close to being a meditation. Ghéon’s play, of course, offers both drama and contemplation, and it is to be expected that different performances, let alone different productions, might lean slightly towards one or the other. This is one of the things that makes drama in general so fascinatingly unpredictable.

In the programme for the 1963 performance, Harold Hobson wrote approvingly of Theatre Roundabout, saying that ‘it is rare indeed to find ideas that the West has inherited down the centuries from its Christian history being stated today in words that really live and move’. To speak in words that live and move sounds to me like a good ambition for the Hampstead Players, for the wider religious drama world and, indeed, for the Church itself.

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