LUCAS HNATH’s The Christiansarrived in London laden with awards, first from its American première and most recently from the Edinburgh Festival (Arts, 4 September), where its popularity made it difficult to get a ticket. Who is going to see it? Not just the Christians.
The likeable Pastor Paul (William Gaminara) has grown his congregation from a dozen into a megachurch with a building bigger than a cathedral. It is a special day in the church’s life, because they have cleared the debt, and we hear the sermon that marks the occasion. But, unexpectedly, Paul uses the sermon to announce that he does not believe in hell. He believes that the death and resurrection of Jesus have saved every human being, and that heaven is the destiny not only of Christians, but of those of other religions or no faith at all.
His deputy (Stefan Adegbola) cannot understand why he is being asked to change the beliefs that first captivated him, and leaves to start a rival church. In increasing numbers, people leave Paul’s church and join. Jenny (Lucy Ellinson, who is one of the country’s finest stage actresses) voices their anxieties. Why is Paul suggesting that the Bible doesn’t say what it appears to say? Does this apply even to Hitler? Why didn’t he mention that he believed this previously? Was he waiting until the church’s finances were secure?
Hnath’s taut and cleverly paced dialogue means that the ideas become as gripping as a thriller. It is almost all spoken into microphones, echoing slightly as a reminder that every aspect of Paul’s crisis is being played out in public. Even his wife, Elizabeth (Jaye Griffiths, in another moving performance), cannot say anything to him unamplified, because the way they relate to each other is under the congregation’s scrutiny.
In Christopher Haydon’s deft production, our sympathies keep changing, because no one’s integrity goes unquestioned. The only element of the production which did not completely work in the Edinburgh première was the on-stage use of a local community choir to provide musical punctuation. Although it seems churlish to mention it, they sounded like the dignified ladies of a thousand parish-church choirs, and not the gospel singers of a megachurch.
This is set in a church, but it could be taking place in any setting in which the leader’s ideals and the organisation’s well-being are in tension with each other. It could be the Labour Party. It could be a campaigning charity. But any preacher who has realised that it is not possible to say in a pulpit what he or she really believes because of the way some in the pews might respond will recognise this situation and burn with sympathy for Pastor Paul.
This is a really fine and really important play. I urge you to see it.
The Christians runs at the Gate Theatre, 11 Pembridge Road, London W11, until 3 October. Tickets from www.gatetheatre.co.uk or phone 020 7229 0706.