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To laugh or cry?

08 November 2013

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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?

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