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London theatre to stage play about spiritual abuse

20 October 2023

Nell Hardy

A rehearsal scene from I, Lord

A rehearsal scene from I, Lord

A PLAY about spiritual abuse is to have a platform at University College London’s Bloomsbury Theatre, at the end of the month, promising “uncompromisingly compassionate lyricism” from the company Response Ability Theatre.

Set within the rhythms and structures of a Church of England church service, but informed by survivors from other faiths and none, I, Lord, by Nell Hardy, is inspired by her own and others’ experience of spiritual abuse. This is defined as abuse that takes place in a faith setting; abuse that has been justified by faith; or anything that forces someone to live by values that are not their own.

The play explored “what makes us put up with mistreatment within faith settings, what prevents those outside [them] from creating safety for survivors, and how we can follow our own callings in a world that needs us to take sides”, Ms Hardy said on Monday.

The scenes, which include flashbacks, are framed as though they are happening when the attention of congregation members is drifting away from what the priest is saying. They demonstrate the power of saying words together with other people, she suggests, inducing a warmth and solidarity in communities that can make it difficult to call out bad behaviour.

“There’s a lot in the play about how it’s actually the bureaucracy that does it, much more than the actual value system,” she says. Empowerment is the play’s ultimate goal, and, “in terms of people who might be worried about getting triggered, we’ve done a very careful design process with a group of survivors.

“We see a lot of characters who clearly have very strong ideas of what they think is true and not true; how people should behave; what it is that people should live by.”

An understanding of the present climate also feeds into the play, she says, which, now that it is in rehearsal, “is about seeing if it still feels right to the survivors in this space”.

The play has a single performance on 30 October. The show will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by Dr Ayesha Émon, a survivor and lecturer in public health. Panellists include Professor Lisa Oakley, who chairs the National Working Group on Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief. This is intended as a “bridge between academia and the public, leveraging art and theatre to facilitate dialogue on sensitive issues”, Ms Hardy says.

A children’s show, for audience members aged from five to 11, runs in parallel: a creative session involving a quest, and an exploration of the difference between a religious tale and any other story.

I, Lord is supported by Arts Council England, Old Diorama Arts Centre, and Theatre Deli, and has a community cast of nine. Writing it has been a difficult “journey for me to get my voice back”, Ms Hardy says. Her 2021 autobiographical solo show, NoMad, her first performed work, was based on her period of homelessness.

I, Lord is being staged at 4.30 p.m. on Monday 30 October, the Bloomsbury Theatre, Gordon Street, London WC1. To book, visit: ucl.ac.uk/culture/whats-on/i-lord.

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