By Jonathan Moore
Pleasance Theatre, London, May-June 2015

The life and struggles of St Ignatius Loyola – muscular Christian and all-round poster-boy for the Counter-Reformation – does not immediately suggest itself as a fit subject for a contemporary art-house play. Especially if the playwright is Jonathan Moore – radical director of great opera premières such as Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek and one-time collaborator with Joe Strummer of The Clash (younger readers please refer to Google...). Yet here it is, played out in the Pleasance theatre a step away from the hipsterism and designer beer of the Caledonian Road. We walk into the theatre from all this activity outside to suddenly find ourselves immersed in the power politics and theological controversies of early 16th century Spain.

Such a terse and multi-layered piece, given over to much theological and philosophical discussion, is enriched by the skill of the actors performing it. They have been chosen well – a troupe of mainly young RADA graduates and seasoned professionals radiating all the energy, struggle and drama of this crucial turning point of European history as played out in the life of our eponymous hero (‘Inigo’ being the original Basque name of the saint who would later assume the title of ‘Master Ignatius’ after his studies in Paris). First amongst equals is Fayez Bakhsh (his first role after graduating from drama school) whose Inigo occupies a space of quiet intensity as if lit from behind – here surely is a great future actor in the making. Portraying the conversion of a libertine to a saint is no mean feat but I think Bakhsh pulls it off. Also worth mentioning are Reggie Oliver as the suave and sophisticated Figuero who turns, St Paul like, from persecutor of Ignatius to one of his strongest advocates and Paul Storrier, camping it up as a somewhat cartoonish Gian Carafa (later to become Pope Paul IV – the Pope who famously put the fig-leaves on Michelangelo’s work). Moore’s writing is at times expressive and lyrical alternating with the demotic life of 16th century Spain. The former is revealed in the subtle allegories and symbolism of the piece – not least the heavy anvil blows that punctuate the piece and recall the spectator’s attention to the central insistent hammering of Inigo’s drive. The latter is translated easily to the street language of Moore’s native London and the early fights, skirmishes and womanising appears uncannily like the London streets we have travelled through to get to the theatre. However, juxtaposed with these scenes are ones of quiet intensity where the struggles of the young spiritual seeker are movingly portrayed. In an age and society obsessed with ‘radicalisation’ and general fear of faith I am not sure what contemporary audiences will make of all this. We were a small but dedicated group (if somewhat eclectic) and I wonder whether our wider cultural amnesia regarding faith will prevent this piece becoming the critical success it deserves. Yet, with love and careful acting it is clearly a fine piece with some moving writing. I can see it as something young groups of people, especially in schools and colleges, could seize upon as an entirely workable drama production with a thinking reflection on the nature of faith. I cannot see it becoming the basis of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical however. Reading the full text after the performance I noticed that a number of stage directions and cuts were made (this is its second outing, initially staged at the Bear Theatre in London) – most pertinently the removal of the character of the young Inigo. It will be interesting to see what future directors make of this and hope we can look forward to a long and varied history of interpretation of this fascinating piece.

Peter Tyler, St Mary’s University,

July/August 2015

Composer: Karol Szymanowski
Royal Opera House, London, May 2015

Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the neglected masterpieces of the late-Romantic Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski. Why this should be is anyone’s guess but the most recent manifestation of his art – the Royal Opera House’s production of his masterpiece King Roger/Król Roger – has been fascinating for several reasons.

First of all let’s take the music. If you are not an advocate of what one early 20th century critic called the ‘Peach Brandy and Eternity’ school of lush late romanticism then you should look away now. However, if the final stages of Habsburg decadence collapsing into the eerie whispers of atonality appeals then this is the opera for you.

Embellished with a range of exotic percussion and chords (the action is loosely set in the Sicily and North Africa of the composer’s imagination) the sound itself is mesmerising. Szymanowski completed Act III (a mere 25 minutes in performance) after a move away from his early late-romantic style and the surprising elegance of these last minutes of the opera are beautifully haunting. Sir Antonio Pappano and the ROH orchestra were superb and are to be warmly congratulated on the loving realisation of the score. As the titular king, Mariusz Kwiecien excelled, indeed it is hard to see how his performance could be bettered – likewise his supporting cast of Georgia Jarman as his Queen Roxana and Saimir Pirgu as the enigmatic shepherd/Dionysius. Which brings us on to the production.

Most opera-goers today are resigned to seeing beloved scores trampled and distorted by the idiosyncratic whims of directors. So when I saw the pre-publicity photographs I steeled myself for the usual hiding-behind-the-programme I am accustomed to. Gone is the 12th century Norman Sicily of the composer’s (and my) imagination and instead we find ourselves with a giant head (presumably of Roger) within which the action occurs. Kaspar Holten’s conceit of turning the opera into a duel within Roger’s head of the Dionysian (represented by some remarkably agile writhing from the ROH dance team) and the Apollonian – here represented by his ordered books which are finally consumed in flames – seemed to please many but I think was a bit too heavy-handed for the subtle ambiguity of the score and the music. The fact that the choir begins the opera singing praise to God to the same melody that the beautiful shepherd boy adopts when he arrives to the consternation of the court, points to the composer’s own ambiguity with regard to the relationship between sexuality and spirituality. The director has also chosen to back-read the rise of fascism into the work, justifying this by the fact that Szymanowski suffered himself at the hands of Bolsheviks in the October Revolution of 1917. With regard to the relationship between fascism and libido I have always favoured the interpretation of Wilhelm Reich (who himself suffered at the hands of the Nazis by having his books burnt). Reich characterised the power of fascism as consisting in the repression of desire – not the interpretation of this production. What this then tells us about our own society’s views on sexuality and religion is thus open to question.

Dramatically the opera is problematic, as effectively very little happens and characterisation is thin. In one sense the director is right, this can be seen as an ‘opera of ideas’ – in particular the conflict between the Dionysian and Apollonian as found, inter alia, in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (and thence in Britten’s opera and Visconti’s film). Yet, as already mentioned, what is most striking in Szymanowski’s score (and would become apparent later in his life) is that it inhabits a strange twilight zone between the Dionysian and Apollonian/ the Sexual and Spiritual. In this respect, pace the intentions of the director, the opera appears then not to represent a conflict between the Dionysian and Apollonian but rather a synthesis of the two – as evidenced by the King’s final revelatory aria, which following the logic of this production makes very little sense (having been attacked by the Dionysian thugs in the penultimate scene it would make sense if he had died rather than received a vague sort of revelation). By deciding to introduce, in my view, a false polarity into the opera the director misses a key ingredient of this elusive work. Again, as with all great art, this probably says more about our own 21st century attitudes to sexuality and spirituality (and their unhealthy polarisation) than the preoccupations of an earlier age (imagined or real).

So, a delight to have back in the London repertoire again and hopefully the beginning of more productions and interpretations that will explore the subtle ambiguity of a master-work of the 20th century.

Peter Tyler, St Mary’s University,

July/August 2015

Author: Philip Caldwell & Lewis Ayres
ISBN: 978-1-4541-8038-2
Price: £25.99 RRP
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Date: 2014
Publisher: Fortress Press, USA

Reading the Liturgy
Author: Juliette J. Day
ISBN: 978-0-567-06395-9
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Date: 2014
Publisher: Bloomsbury T&T  Clark

Prophetic Liturgy
Author: Tercio Bretanha Junker
ISBN: 978-1-62032-956-5
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Date: 2014
Publisher: Pickwick Publications

The God We Worship
Author: Nicholas Wolterstorff
ISBN: 978-0-8028-7249-4
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Date: 2015
Publisher: Eerdmans
Catholics are continuing to mark the golden jubilee of Vatican II; it is often pointed out that the Fathers deliberately chose that the first constitution to be published should be that covering Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. In the light of this and other events pastoral liturgy continues to be a fruitful source for theological study and writing both in the Catholic Church and in other Christian communities. For Catholics, some of this study and writing, often contentious, has been prompted by new revisions of texts translated from the Latin (particularly the 2010 English translation) the continuing process of ‘reception’ of the Vatican II documents, and the place within the Catholic community of the ‘Extraordinary Form’ of the Roman rite since its use was ‘liberalised’ by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.

Perusing the Catholic ‘blogosphere’ can give the impression that few things excite more passion and anger, or shocking sins against charity, than liturgy.
The academic study of liturgy and its practical application in pastoral settings also needs to be integrated with other theological developments. The first book in this selection of new books on the subject, by Fr Caldwell (who is on the staff of Oscott seminary) does this very well. His starting point is the relationship between liturgical theology and the Church’s developing understanding of revelation and he examines the relationship through the work of four important theologians of the last century: René Latourelle, Avery Dulles, Salvatore Marsili and Gustave Martelet. The first two are probably reasonably well known to English-speaking students of theology, the second two less so – and Caldwell has done a great service by explaining their thought, especially as many of the works concerned have not yet been translated into English. The book is very thorough and detailed, and Caldwell looks at the material in depth. He places liturgy very firmly in the Ressourcement tradition and this gives us vital background material for understanding the council’s decree.

A striking and perhaps unexpected feature of liturgical theology in the last century or so has been its ecumenical angle, and the remaining three books in this survey are from non-Catholic traditions. Wolterstorff’s The God We Worship is a series of public lectures, the Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In this country the popular Grove booklets two or three decades ago enabled Catholics to understand something of how Evangelical Christians saw liturgical worship, and these lectures given in late 2013 fulfil a similar purpose in the American context. Wolterstorff begins his opening lecture with a claim that all theology should really be about ‘the God we Christians worship’ – so theology of worship and liturgy has to be fundamental to the whole theological project. The author’s task in the series, as he explains at the beginning of the second lecture, is ‘to make explicit the understanding of God implicit in the Christian liturgy and then to make a beginning at developing and elaborating those understandings theologically.’ (p.21). In that lecture ‘God as Worthy of Worship’ he looks at the sort of God put before us in liturgical texts from a wide variety of traditions; in the subsequent lectures he looks at God in terms of vulnerability, his being able to participate ‘in mutual address’, his capacity to listen to and hear us, and the concept of his speaking to us. Catholics for the most part have very little idea of how Protestants really understand the Eucharist (except in negative terms) so it is good that the final lecture looks at the picture of God we receive in the Eucharist, drawing both on the Orthodox liturgy and on John Calvin. This is a valuable and well written series of lectures.

Catholics tend to see the growth of Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America as rather a threat and would often not seek enlightenment about liturgy from that source. The author of Prophetic Liturgy, Tercio Bretanha, is a Brazilian Baptist, but one who has worked with many Catholic communities, particularly those linked to Liberation Theology, which is a primary source for his reflections. Bretanha is based in the USA (Indianopolis) and he also draws on the worship traditions of a wide variety of groups. He explores sensitively how liturgy can act as a prophetic voice and contribute to the transformation of the world; he is also familiar with on the one hand Catholic theologians such as Romano Guardini, very influential on the liturgical thought of Benedict XVI, and the Radical Orthodoxy school shown in the important writings of Catherine Pickstock and Bill Cavanaugh. Again, this book has a refreshing approach, free from some of the polemicism about liturgy found in some Catholic circles. My only criticism is of a slightly fussy approach to language and categories: so at one point we are warned against describing countries in the world as ‘developed’, ‘under-developed’ ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ (p.93). Bretanha argues that all these terms are used by others rather than the subjects themselves, and that they reinforce the status quo: but I am not really convinced. Extreme poverty and other forms of structural sin in the world can’t really be challenged unless they are recognized, and this requires ways of describing them which can be readily understood; moreover the language of wealth and poverty pervades the whole of scripture, particularly the prophetic tradition.

The last book in this collection Reading the Liturgy, is a more detailed exploration of texts used in worship. Juliette Day is an Anglican, teaching Church History at Helsinki but also a research fellow at Blackfriars in Oxford. Her study is an examination of liturgical texts: ‘in this book we shall concentrate on the specifically textual aspects of the liturgical text, that is not what it says but how it says it.’ So the chapters of her book, two of which are based on articles published earlier in the journal Anaphora, cover topics such as authorship, narrative, language, genre and various more technical aspects of textual analysis; she draws on a wide variety of contemporary liturgies from the Catholic, Anglican and Reformed traditions. At the heart of Day’s approach is the need to see liturgical worship as a ‘threshold’, drawing on the work of Joris Geldhof and William Jesmond: ‘A threshold …requires the participants to pass over or though into God’s presence, to a place where his image and likeness may be restored. The liturgical text does not remain outside while the worshippers cross over the threshold to engage in real worship, but rather it constitutes the threshold itself; it receives its proper identity only when used to facilitate this transition.’ (p. 164) Perhaps in all liturgical debates this notion needs to be borne in mind, so that we do not see the text and language used as an end in itself.

July/August 2015

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