THE diocese of Coventry was created in 1918. In association with the Belgrade Theatre, five writers with strong connections to the city were given a brief for short works to be performed as part of the Plumb Line Centenary Arts Festival. They were to be “inspired by the idiosyncratic magic of the Coventry Cathedral Ruins and to share something of that magic with an audience”.
They were inspired. The Ruins are a dramatic backdrop to whatever people come here for, whether it’s lunchtime sandwiches or sanctuary. They make for powerful performance space, not least because audience members naturally gravitate to the stone remnants of pillars and walls, sitting on them with an easy familiarity that says, “This place is ours.”
The plays depict encounters at five points of history. They have the common thread of “Abide with me”, sung a cappella by the five actors (Tariq Jordan, Jessica Dennis, Adaya Henry, Oraine Johnson, Max Morton), and the subject of Nick Walker’s play of the same name. It includes the writing of the hymn by the consumptive Henry Francis Lyte, and an invitation to see it as about life, not death — something that resonates with the Ruins themselves.
There’s an unlikely angel in Don’t Look Back in Anger, by Paven Virk. Two lads from “Cov” find themselves caught up in the horrors of the 7 July bombings on a trip to London. The survivor is haunted with guilt, seeking refuge in the Ruins, fearful as a Muslim of being scapegoated. “My lot are scared. My soul is broken, Bro,” he says with passion.
Without Let or Hindrance by Ola Animashawun, returns to 1987, Coventry’s finest hour, when the Sky Blues won the FA Cup. A fan, caught short, seeks relief in the Ruins, to the outrage of a troubled girl who has come there to get her head round an unwanted pregnancy. “You saw council estate. You saw thicko,” he says in accusation, of first impressions. He’s “not religious”, but there’s “summat about this place”, he concedes. The ending brings a smile.
Marcia Layne’s play, The Greatest Love of All, is set in 1962, when a Nigerian immigrant couple are enduring a cold winter, a sense of alienation, and the wife’s fierce longing to go back home with the new baby. “I am made of stone,” she cries, as her young husband cradles the baby in defence. She can’t breathe, in a dramatic panic attack, but he persuades her to stay: “We can do this together.”
Under the Spire by Alan Pollock is the most tender of all, a charming 1947 encounter between a Polish war veteran who has learned his English from the pub, and a shy girl. The Pole has cheated death on several occasions: the girl tells him gently, “This is Coventry. We’ve all lost someone.”
Coventry is City of Culture in 2021: the Dean, the Very Revd John Witcombe, is a driver of all things creative, and looks forward to continued and increasing artistic collaboration between city and cathedral.