ENCOURAGING the nation to laugh and to cry; daring to confront
the unknown; creating a shared experience of delight and
exaltation; showing us things we had never thought possible;
pushing us beyond our comfort boundaries - these may all sound like
the mission statement of our national Church, but in fact are
elements in the story of the Royal National Theatre, whose 50th
anniversary of opening was celebrated in Arena: The National
Theatre (BBC4, Thursdays).
Of course, theatre and religion have inextricably entwined roots
and practices, both of them seeking to bring their devotees into a
place that is at once safe and dangerous, that provides a secure
environment where we can both confront and embrace possibilities
that we could never have imagined: Church and stage are both in the
business of transformation and building community.
The National Theatre's story is a particularly British triumph:
150 years in gestation; treated with suspicion by the political
establishment when it finally arrived; an architectural statement
far grander and monolithic than many of its champions wanted;
continual debate about its financial subsidy's draining resources
from struggling regional theatres; and, in its more recent
embracing of spectacular musicals, undermining the commercial
theatre with an unfair, publicly funded head-start.
These criticisms have at least a grain of truth, but the
programme, telling the story of the NT in its social and political
context, reminding us of half a century of struggle and dispute as
well as triumph, surely vindicated an institution that has not
merely celebrated but at significant moments challenged and
extended our political, social, and moral consensus.
Quitting the English Defence League: When Tommy met Mo
(BBC1, Monday of last week) told a story of courage, catharsis -
and, perhaps, betrayal. Mo Ansah, a Muslim-community activist, with
extraordinary courage contacted Tommy Robinson, the founder of the
English Defence League (EDL), as he languished in prison, to try to
show him the reality rather than the myth of British Islam.
Surprisingly, Robinson had been studying the Qur'an, and was
willing to engage in a debate. This led to a remarkable journey for
both of them: Ansah facing extremely hostile groups of EDL
supporters, and Robinson entering a mosque for the first time,
overwhelmed by the hospitality that he received.
This exploration led them to the think tank the Quilliam
Foundation; discussions here led to Robinson's leaving the EDL and
joining the Foundation. But Ansah was now left behind, forbidden to
enter the press conference announcing the change of heart. He had
been made uncomfortable by many of Quilliam's attitudes: its
ultra-liberal reading of Islam sat uneasily with his faith.
The programme ended in pregnant irresolution: how genuine is
Robinson's change of heart? Is Quilliam's take on Islam so
different from what most British Muslims would recognise as to
undermine its value?