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
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