PERPETUAL is an experimental theatre piece that weaves sounds, ideas, and startling images around the story of Jesus’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. Described by its composer, James Shearman, as a sonic opera, it has a superb minimalist electronic score. It hums with endless passing time, crackles with the agony of an incurable illness, groans fractured words of Jesus from St John’s Gospel, and, finally, chimes death’s release.
The almost wordless piece is staged on a garden of bleak earth around a white tomb. Lazarus (Tim Harris) has walked the earth, naked and unageing, since Jesus returned him to life. Nature keeps the seasons turning, and a gardener (Si Gardner) oversees the sowing, growing, pruning, and dying. Sometimes she is cruel, sometimes kind, but remorselessly the process continues.
A man with a terminal illness (Taylor Ayling) visits Lazarus’ tomb, longing for death to release him. Death (Liam Cadzow Webb) will not allow this at a time of the man’s own choosing, but only when the last hint of white light is gone.
The ideas are those that have perplexed humans for centuries. What is it about life that, despite its pain and sadness, makes people crave more and more? Should its end always come at a time of nature’s choice (a Christian might say God’s choice) or a human’s own? Do believers have enough trust in Jesus’s claim to be “the Resurrection and the Life” that they can welcome earthly death as a grace?
The production, under Jimmy Addy’s direction, moves at an appropriately funereal pace. The choreography is, to be honest, not quite inventive enough to sustain its 70-minute running time: Lazarus circles, the girl twirls, and an agonised man writhes. It isn’t as engrossing as a dance piece, but, nevertheless, some of the raw images are not easily forgotten.
Slow-moving performance art is not everyone’s idea of a great evening out. It taxed the patience of a group of giggly young women beyond their ability to stay. It has some brilliant ideas — the garlands of flowers which bloom into light at the touch of a girl’s finger are beautiful (the lighting design is by Aiden Bromley). It also has some absolutely terrible ideas: a five-minute sequence in which the audience is literally required to watch paint dry is the kind of scene that usually appears in a parody of experimental theatre.
It sent me back to John 11, and a question I ask myself every time I read that narrative. Everyone speaks of the raising of Lazarus as the story in which Jesus weeps. But I have always found it more interesting because of the times when Jesus doesn’t weep.
When Jesus is told that his friend is critically ill, he does nothing for two days. There are no tears. When the news arrives that Lazarus is dead, Jesus is unmoved. Still no tears. It is only four days after his bereavement that Jesus weeps. And that comes at a moment when Jesus realises the enormity of what he is going to do. He is about to call Lazarus back from the joyous perfection of paradise to this world, where there is grief and pain and fear and loss.
I think Perpetual has unwittingly, but intriguingly, uncovered why Jesus wept.
Perpetual: A sonic opera runs at The Bunker, Southwark Street, London SE1, until 1 July. After the performance on 28 June, the Revd Charles Pickstone, Vicar of St Laurence’s, Catford, will lead a discussion on the iconography of death in faith and art. Box office: phone 0207 234 0486. www.bunkertheatre.com