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Poetry and dance among the ruins

13 March 2015

by Pat Ashworth


In the Coventry ruins: Claire Henderson Davis and Fraser Paterson, with Malcolm Guite in the background

In the Coventry ruins: Claire Henderson Davis and Fraser Paterson, with Malcolm Guite in the background

STARK expressions of suffering abound in Coventry Cathedral, from the Charred Cross rescued from the ruins to the twisted and misshapen Cross of Nails on the high altar and the spiky crown of thorns canopy above Spence's choir stalls.

Against these backdrops, Claire Henderson Davis's Passion was played out among the audience, and with a profundity that could still to absolute silence. Darkness and the chill of night added to the drama and tension in the illuminated ruins where the journey began. It was told in Malcolm Guite's sonnet cycle The Stations of the Cross, in the embodied movement of two dancers playing all the roles (including the cross itself) , and through the improvised dialogue of saxophone (Dan Forshaw) and oboe (Jan Payne) (Features, 20 February).

Pouring out of the ruins, the music was wild, primeval, cacophonous: in the new cathedral, the cascade of notes caught the echo and continued to be awesome. The echo did less for the narration of the second stage of the journey, which took place in front of John Hutton's soaring glass Screen of Saints and Angels. Spoken from memory and often on the move by the poet himself, the sonnets are so strong and clear and vital that no single word can be sacrificed to an echo or a turning away.

But in the chancel, the effect of the piece was awesome. Henderson Davis's Christ, surrounded by the Women of Jerusalem (locally recruited women in everyday dress), is literally stripped from the waist upwards of her garment. Her nakedness, seen only from the rear, expresses utter vulnerability, most manifestly in the bareness of the bent and exposed neck. In a complexity of portrayals of different kinds of divine love, there are bridal flowers, an abruptly terminated lovers' kiss, a crown of thorns extracted from the wheeled shopper pulled along with grim determination by the oldest woman.

In inspired staging using the cathedral's fixed furniture, Christ's body was first laid on the wooden altar table that stands some distance below the high altar. The unexpected interlude of Guite's solo acoustic guitar, awakening and quickening, heralded the resurrection, with the barefoot Christ walking the length of the cathedral to make the approach to Fraser Paterson's Mary Magdalene in the Garden. Here, the actions are beautifully matched to the words of the last sonnet: 

He blesses every love that weeps  and grieves
And now he blesses hers who tood and wept
And would not be consoled, or leave her love's
Last touching place, but watched as low light crept
Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs. . . 

It ended with a spinning, whirling dance of exultation, a playful chase around the altar, now an empty tomb. Reclaiming cathedrals as performance space is one of Henderson Davis's prime motivations. It worked in Coventry, a building designed to make worshippers journey to the Cross of Nails before turning round and, in retracing their steps, find the real glory.

At Chester Cathedral, 12 March; Ely Cathedral, 3 April (Good Friday); and St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, 11-13 August. www.passiontour.org 

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