Let’s get the Nativity out onto the streets

The Liverpool Nativity

The Liverpool Nativity, 2007

Christmas is a time of the year when three forms of performance inundate the land – carol singing, pantomime and the nativity play, (although increasingly the Christmas musical seems to be replacing the traditional pantomime, perhaps driven by the fact that Christmas stories and myths are as much those now promulgated by film and television than by folk tales – it won’t be long before ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ becomes a standard Christmas theatre show).

Carol singing is a moment of genuine collective voice, and indeed the rise of popularity of choirs – both as an audience and a participant – is testament to the changing ways in which we are looking for our collective fix. Pantomimes are hugely interesting and complex forms of theatre, in which all sorts of theories about the way that an audience engages, responds to, and shapes the meaning of a performance can be brought into play. But it is the nativity play that most interests me.

For many of us the nativity is the moment that we sit squashed together on benches in a school hall and watch our children stagger through the story of the birth of Christ. And every single one of us sees something completely different, because we are generally focussing on those children we are related to, or know well; and they are, in return, looking for and at us. Apologies for bringing theory into this but I think it’s something that anyone who writes community theatre has to be aware of and to potentially use.

In ‘Languages of the Stage’ Patrice Pavis interrogates the tension between the text and the performance; a tension in which ‘the text is revealed in all its fragility, constantly menaced as it is by the gestuality which might at any time interrupt its emission, and which always guides the spectator in the rhythm of his reception’. For anyone who has watched a nativity it is always this ‘gestuality’ that is remembered; the nose that is picked as the shepherds arrive; the distracted look out into the audience from Mary as the myrrh is handed over. Of course it is faintly ludicrous to think that a group of very young children are in a position to do anything other than this, but as Pavis continues: ‘The fiction … is always at the mercy of interruptions in the enactment: the event, the spectator’s material reality, the actor’s presence’. For Pavis there is an ongoing relationship and tension between a ‘horizontal reading (obedient to the text, narration, and ideology) and in a vertical reading (constructed within the event, in the sentiment aroused by the actor’s presence)’.

I offer this here because I think that the community play revels in the tension between these two readings. Not only does it create theatrical meaning from performers who may truly interrupt the writers envisaged enactment it often does this with a huge number of them, wandering around and bumping into each other. It is messy. The readings for the audience are often – at least in the Colway Theatre model – enormously multiplied. Everywhere they look there is something else happening; there is a cacophony of messages flying around that are pieced together by the individual audience member. And yet at the heart of this there are the moments when these individuals come together, when the collective is formed and when, however messy it may be and however much the audience member may still find themselves focussing on Aunty Maude’s funny wig, the fusion of this individual reading and the potential for a more coherent group reading comes together. And this is something that can be utilised. But enough of that.

Why is it that the nativity has become the preserve of child performers? I’d be interested to know the point at which the school system decided to present this story, which is now a staple of the primary school calendar and which brings its own issues within an increasingly pluralistic society. (Although the annual Daily Mail outrage at an un-Christian nativity that it has spotted somewhere was deflected this year by the Gregg’s Nativity Sausage Roll Scandal.  As the Revered Mark Edwards said of the Gregg’s nativity scene advert ‘To replace Jesus with a half-eaten sausage roll is just going to the lowest common denominator …I think if they tried that with any other faith you can imagine the outcry there would be, and rightly so.’)

In 2007 BBC3 broadcast The Liverpool Nativity, an event that launched the city’s year as the Capital of Culture, advertising it with: ‘Liverpool’s great musical heritage is the soundtrack to a contemporary drama set in a fictitious state, a tale as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. It tells the intimate personal story of a pregnant young girl, set against a backdrop of political tension and unrest, and stars a host of well-known Liverpool actors and personalities’. This was a production in which a modern retelling of the nativity took place in locations right across the city using Liverpool actors and Liverpool music.

The Liverpool Nativity followed on from the success of The Manchester Passion, again broadcast by BBC 3, and again being a contemporary reworking of that story with Manchester music. The Bishop of Manchester said that for him the production had “a sincerity and an ability to shock and connect that is not far removed from how it must have been on the first Good Friday’, which is high praise indeed, especially in an increasingly secular world in which if you attend a Christmas service the first thing that strikes you is how few people there are in the church compared to the primary school nativity.

I don’t know how much these plays influenced the thinking of NTW and Wildworks, but in 2011 they produced what it still seen as an exemplar of community theatre practice (at least within the more traditional theatre environment) with their version of The Passion, written by Owen Sheers, which was, as the NTW website states ‘supported by over 1,000 community volunteers’, interestingly going on to say that the production brought ‘over 22,000 people to the town’.

The Passion Port Talbot

Michael Sheen in The Passion, Port Talbot, 2011

The Manchester Passion meanwhile in the same year was recreated for a Dutch audience in Gouda, another example of the way that more community orientated theatre practices have found their way to the Netherlands (where they are often developed in a way that many British community artists can only feel envious of). It is now broadcast annually in different Dutch cities and, according to Wikipedia, ‘its format has also been exported to other countries, including Belgium and the United States’. And so – it appears – the Passion play has become a franchise.

I’ve just finished reading Robert Hewison’s ‘Culture and Consensus: England, Art and Politics since 1940’, which traces the evolution of the idea of culture from an (at times unsuspecting) paternalistic defender of establishment values, to an all-encompassing ‘public culture’  in which ‘the traditional opposition between culture and industrial society has disappeared. Instead of preserving the classical and cultural values of western civilisation, which resisted the socially destructive drive of industrialisation, cultural activity now has the authority of the state to encourage the citizen’s indulgent consumption, no longer tempering the naked greed of the market by appeals to the spiritual and moral values of art, but extracting as much profit as possible, looking to the arts as a means of economic recovery’.

Both the Liverpool Nativity, the Manchester Passion, and (to a lesser extent maybe) The Port Talbot Passion are interesting examples of performances that are caught up in this dilemma. I’m sure that in all of these projects there was a hope that by retelling a story that everyone knows, on the streets of a specific community and using music from that community, that there was an attempt to create a sense of a collective understanding and identity that chimed with the anti-individualistic message of the stories themselves. And yet at the same time they were also unashamedly advertisements for the cities that they were performed in, for a national and maybe even an international audience. You can imagine the meetings where the plea for roads to be closed were prefaced with arguments about ‘profile’.

The tensions are even clearer when you look a little more closely at the Dutch version of the Passion, which has involvement from both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. With a clock ticking down the hours and seconds before the next edition (to be held in 2018 in De Bijlmer, Amsterdam) it appears to have become an interesting addition to the country’s cultural calendar, and one that perhaps arouses debate around social and religious issues in a country that is grappling with pluralism in the same way that we are in the U.K. And yet at the very same time that it has the ability to do this work it is clear, from the fact that the Gouda passion won an award for ‘best city marketing event’, that the moment a large scale performance enters into a public space it finds itself co-opted by the values of that public space. And these values are ultimately driving the potential for collective experience away from and out of the physical public sphere. (This article about the  ‘startling spread of pseudo-public spaces’ across London is a really well researched and worrying read).

Perhaps its time to get the nativity out onto the streets again, although in a smaller way, not worrying about TV deals and profile building. Presumably one of the reasons that the Passion is a much easier model to roll out is not just because its a more public story (rather than one that fundamentally takes place in a shed) but also because at Christmas there is literally no public space left to create such an event, as every square inch is taken up with German Markets or other ways to ensure that we spend as much money as possible to keep things just about ticking along.

Maybe the hidden nature of the nativity story lends itself perfectly to secret performances that happen in the shadows of this great consumerist splurge. Or maybe I just have to accept that the only spaces where a nativity play can happen are in churches, where nobody goes anymore; theatres, which are trying to balance their books with a successful pantomime aided by a star name from a successful TV series; or a primary school.

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