The Passion in Lear

25 April 2014

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The Passion in Lear

IT WAS still dark when we joined the queue outside the box office at the National Theatre. We were after tickets for King Lear, the acclaimed production starring Simon Russell Beale as the crazed king. All seats had been sold long ago. But, for all its shows, the National holds back a handful of tickets to be sold on the day - although for a sell-out such as this you have to be there before dawn to get one.

We were lucky, and that night we found ourselves in the front row of the stalls. Russell Beale gave us a great Lear, as tremendous a performance as Warren Mitchell's, years ago, at the Hackney Empire.

Long ago, I taught Lear at an international school in Tanzania. Most of the class - and a different nation was represented at each desk - had never read a Shakespeare play before, and, for some, this was the very first English literary text that they had looked at. But the old wizard had his way. Shakespeare's "rough magic" worked, and all were swiftly under his spell.

The theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn recently claimed that Shakespeare is "one hundred times more relevant today than the Bible". There are bits of the Bible of which that claim is clearly true - the Levitical ban on eating bats, and Paul's weird views on women, for example.

But Sir Trevor overstates his case. Both Lear and the story of Jesus are Passion narratives. Both explore what it takes for us to live for each other. Both point to the possibility of redemption. Neither story is privileged over the other; for both are luminous with the truth at the heart of things.
 

Reach for the sky

A WEDDING-anniversary gift to me from my wife was a ticket for the two of us to ascend the Shard. We were blessed by a fine day, and had breathtaking views across a brace of dioceses. It was instructive to compare their cathedrals.

Far beneath us, throttled by railway lines and busy roads, was what appeared to be a tiny chapel. This I took to be Southwark's mother church. Across the river, proud St Paul's basked in the sun like a great Behemoth. The two buildings tell very different stories about God and I know which I prefer.

Of course, the Shard is a temple, too. It is a contemporary example of what the Bible calls "a high place". High places were dedicated to idol worship, to the likes of Moloch and his crowd. The Shard may have more to do with Mammon than Moloch, but it still suggests a degree of misplaced worship.

Not that we allowed that pious sentiment to spoil our enjoyment of the views. Nor will it stop us taking a ride to the top of the planned observation tower i360 once it is finished. It will be 600 feet high, and is soon to soar to the skies on the Brighton seafront. "Only Brighton's Alice in Wonderland politics could conceive a folly like this," The Guardian says.

Personally, I'm all for projects shaped by Alice in Wonderland. The clergy should be encouraged to take more leaves out of Lewis Carroll's book, and fewer from the latest management manual.
 

Worthwhile search

FIFTY years ago this month, the Church of England Youth Council met in conference at Swanwick. The keynote speaker was the late Frances Wilkinson. In her address, she called for a "theology of childhood". Although Karl Rahner had spoken of a "Theologie der Kindheit" a year or two earlier, that turn of phrase, and the very idea of a theology of childhood, was altogether new to us in this country. I was not at the conference, but I read about it in the church press.

I was seized by Wilkinson's appeal, and I rashly decided to try to rise to her challenge. I thought I would start by searching the Bible for what it says about children. "That shouldn't take long," I told myself - such was my naïvety, and such was the general assumption in those days that the Bible had little to say about children. I was quite wrong, of course.

Half a century later, my search continues. Only the other day I was struck for the first time by the implications of the scriptural requirement "not to sit down until the child arrives" (1 Samuel 16.11). So I keep looking, although I am delighted that today there are so many more in the hunt.
 

Pastoral thoughts

WE MET a shepherd, Ivor, on a Welsh hillside recently. He told us how good a lambing season it has been this year. It was another story a year ago. The hills were snowbound; the cold was merciless; and many lambs were lost. For the good shepherd Ivor, those were heartbreaking days.

His beautiful young collie, Moss, was with him. He spoke wonderingly of the skill of the dogs that tended his sheep with a devotion matching his own. Here was a man attuned to the seasons, to the beasts of the field, and to the whole natural order. It was a benediction to meet him.

Later, it dawned on me that this was the first conversation I had ever had with a shepherd. Not that ignorance has prevented me from going on about shepherds from various pulpits over the years.
 

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton.

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