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Diary: Pat Ashworth

11 November 2022

ISTOCK

Not just for Christmas

WE HAD been desperately seeking Joseph, and we had found him. He was 14, going on 15, six foot four, and a little bashful. He was the perfect match for our feisty teenage Mary, and he was already on top of his lines.

It is eight years since we last put on my medieval nativity, Star Safari (Arts, 21 November 2014), and we had an adult Joseph then, familiar with the genre and easier to cast. Youths whose only points of reference have been the tea towels, dressing-gown cords, and wobbling tinsel haloes of the school nativity are wary of looking uncool — and who can blame them?

But family life is complex these days, and our Joseph has fallen victim to arrangements in which he had no powers of refusal; so we are on the lookout once again. I even eye the lad who gives me my change in the supermarket and (no pun intended) think he would fit the bill completely.

The play began life as a promenade play in the streets and fields, but the vagaries of climate change, plus our acquired love of performing in Southwell Minster, have drawn us indoors. We can’t, this time, have a real fire for the lambing scene, but there will be no rainfall threat to the woolly tenderness of our life-sized sheep. And we can put God in the organ loft.

For the final tableau, we have been studying Caravaggio. The beauty and intensity of it all cuts us to the quick. We marvel at the power of Ludovica Rambelli Theatre to create tableaux vivants of the paintings using swaths of white, red, and black silk, swiftly and deftly draped and tucked to create an Annunciation, a Crucifixion, a Deposition, a Flight into Egypt. One tableau dissolves into another, to the strains of Mozart and before our very eyes.

But it is the faces and outstretched hands that we are reading which tell their own story. “Doing a nativity” is more than putting on a play. We somehow feel we have been here all our lives.


Rock of ages

ALONGSIDE all this, John Whitehurst FRS, 18th-century clockmaker, is living in my head. He moved into it more than a year ago, and has firmly established himself as Lunar Man, the title of my next play.

His struggles to reconcile Genesis and geology take me to Curbar Edge, in the White Peak of Derbyshire, with its dramatic rock formations. There is the chink of harness as climbers negotiate their way up the gritstone faces, and the snorting of Highland cattle. Who knows how they came to be here?

I am walking in the footsteps of the man in my head, knowing that almost nothing here has changed since he himself came to scribble down the strata and ponder the origins of these phenomena.

I sit on the flat crest of a mighty piece of rock, and eat my sandwiches and exult at the panorama in front of me. The Emperor Fountain at distant Chatsworth is a plume of white in the blue sky. God is in his heaven.


Creatures great and small

WE HAVE rechristened our family dog Bertie the Blessed. He behaves impeccably at his first encounter with the Church: a Woof and Wag service of thanksgiving and blessing for the animals who share our lives. It is in the city churchyard of St John’s, Carrington, a secure and sociable space, beloved of dog-walkers in the locality.

We give thanks for the animals we love, who, “in their uncomplicated love, show us something of your unconditional love for us; in them we catch a glimpse of your Kingdom”.

Whippets have a way of rising to an occasion, sitting straight-backed to pose as though for a portrait, and turning their steady gaze on the onlooker from their clear, round, boot-button eyes. Bertie solemnly gives a paw to the Revd Tracey Byrne, even before he knows about the bag of gravy bones that he and the other dogs will take away as a parting gift.

The memory of him demolishing a Bible in his puppy days fades into history. Our hearts swell with pride. A gloriously shaggy dog who has had a leg amputated cavorts as freely as the rest; another is blind, and stays safely with his people. We go out “in the peace and gentle wisdom of God, to care for all God’s creatures”.


Burden of song

IT IS always a joy to sing at the RSCM’s annual Diocesan Choirs Festival in Southwell Minster. But it is sobering to see the consequences of the pandemic in the vastly reduced number of choirs present this year, and in the very small congregation.

On previous occasions, there has been a familiar roll-call of churches from all corners of the diocese — so many that you had to arrive early in the Great Hall if you wanted decent space to robe. In pre-Covid times, the procession in and out through the Great West Door stretched right up the pathway and almost to the main road, and had to be rehearsed in itself.

We are surprised and saddened to be the biggest contingent this time, with many of the familiar names absent and some unlikely to return. There is hope in the presence of a handful of children, and we raise the roof — of course we do. Singing here is inspiring. But we are conscious that the future of church choirs is in all our hands now, and we truly feel the weight of that.

Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.

Star Safari booking details: www.headlandtheatre.co.uk

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