"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19
"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12
Thursday, December 23, 2010
A Contemporary Nativity
A few nights ago we had the Lord Mayor's Carol Concerts in Leeds Town Hall. This is an annual two-shift gig for the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and it sort of marks the start of Christmas for me (although this year that siginificant event was last Saturday's Messiah concert - my first as a Tenor).
In the run up to the Carol Concert our Chorus Master told me that the Committee had been approached to see if anyone would be willing to do a reading - ideally witty and seasonal but not too overtly religious. Our Chorus Master told me that he had nominated me. Do you see what they did there?
Anyway twice last night to a combined audience of about 2,000 people I read the following - a little something from my own penmanship:
Now, take my friend Marlene: she's a very artistic type. You probably know the sort - dangly Trade Craft earrings, pencils and paint brushes pushed into her hair geisha - style: half-moon glasses precariously perched an the end of her nose and a pair of Doc Martens - one red and one green. ('I've another pair like this you know.')
She's a leading light in regional amateur dramatics with a name for her radical re-workings. Her trans-gender 'Phantom of the Opera' is still talked about in hushed tones…… in Dewsbury. Marlene is also a bit of a committee junkie, an inveterate organiser and with a reputation for not tolerating fools: (i.e. most other people she knows). So I wasn't particularly surprised when she agreed to the Church Councils' request to stage last year's Nativity.
So, the committee gathered in her large kitchen, all shaker style furniture and IKEA fittings - very Chapel Allerton. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present. We must make it relevant!” And so she set about her task with relish - carrying the rest of us, I have to say, rather in the slipstream of her enthusiasm.
Her neighbour's daughter, Sigourney, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that at 14, she was pushing the boundaries of virginity somewhat.
“But she's ethnic. Don't you see she's perfect for the part: so 21st century marginalized.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.
Marlene used her contacts at the University to cast the Wise Men who turned out to be Justin, Trevor ... and Brenda … and you probably remember that Marlene and Brenda have not been on civil terms since the unfortunate incident at the Turkish bath.
Well it won't matter' said Marlene, all hurt pride and a large gin. “No one will notice the difference: all they'll see is three moustaches – and that’s before the costumes are on.
The rest of the casting fell into place: the local Imam graciously declined the role of the Angel Gabriel. "Well you can take multiculturalism to the point of political correctness and then where would we all be? Answer me that?" observed Brenda. Terry, the local postman took his place in a stunning piece of symbolism that no one got, even when Marlene, to considerable consternation insisted that he performed in his uniform.
“Philistines.” she said, as she explained with elaborate patience for the third time the symbolism of postman as messenger of God.
“Actually, Marlene, point of order. The Philistines were a very cultured people”
“Actually, Trevor, any more points of order and you’ll be the back end of the donkey."
Sigourney's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper. A night-club doorman by trade he had little difficulty with the lines- “You can't come in here, we're full' although he did tend to keep fooling around at rehearsals and ad-libbing: 'You can't come in mate, but you can, love, we're letting in girls for half price”.
Joseph was to be played by Len, the church caretaker.
"But he's about 1000 years old Marlene."
"Joseph was older than Mary you know. Anyway, it says a lot about the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society."
Rehearsals came and went as rehearsals do.
"Marlene, I'm sorry to interrupt but I'm having trouble with my character in this scene. What's my motivation here?"
"Go away Trevor. You’re a palm tree.”
"Len, please! How often have I told you? Don't smoke during the birth scene - the baby Jesus is inflammable."
"Marlene, if I hear another religious person say: 'and Wise Men seek him still . . . .' I may run screaming from the building"
"Brenda, they're not religious, they're Church of England."
"Sigourney, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas. I'm sorry Cameron ... you've had what pierced? I see .... well, we shan't need to see that on stage thank you very much"
“Point of order, Marlene, technically, its not Christmas, its Advent, which means….”
“SOMEBODY BRING ME THE DONKEY OUTFIT”
"Terry. Drop the line about 'Special Delivery', it's not working-"
"Do I look 1st century enough in this?"
"It's Armani, Justin, you took fine ... Do up your flies."
And so the evening arrived --- and Marlene was proved right. It was a triumph- dramatic, moving and powerful. The stable became an old garage, back-lit in moody tones, the manger: the boot of a jacked-up wreck. Drug paraphernalia littered the floor. Three local characters shared a bottle around a brazier and stray dogs sniffed around the set. Everyone delivered their lines perfectly, and on cue it snowed. Even the arrival of Justin's nieces on set dressed as Frodo and Gandalf didn't raise an eyebrow.
It's hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago now, and here we are again getting ready for this year. It's going to be different this year though. After Marlene's triumph the church council members met in emergency session. Words like uncomfortable, inappropriate, trendy and travesty were bandied about.
So we're back to the traditional again- shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep and angels with tinsel halos. The relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.
It was really well received and I note from my stats a number of INTERNET searchs for it which amazed me. I'm doing a slightly more risque version of it Sunday evening at my Beloved's church on request. It seems to be an annual ritual.