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On Religion - A Theatre Essay

Mick Gordon and A C Grayling
Soho Theatre
(2006)

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"I can't believe that" said Alice. "Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes." Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things"
- from 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' by Lewis Carroll

Belief in God may involve more than drawing in a long breath and shutting one's eyes. However the manner in which some fundamentalists perceive non-believers is a far cry from the Queen's pity.

A black chair stands on stage. On the chair rests a yellow motorcycle helmet, the 'God Helmet' linked by crocodile-clips to a spiral electric wire arching on either side to the unseen ceiling.

There is nothing futuristic about what is to unravel. It is intriguing, stimulating and a raw slice of life. Location, space and time are fluid and fused.

The four protagonists - Grace, her husband Tony, son Tom and his girl-friend Ruth - discuss the present and future. They also debate religion and expose humorous snippets from their past which brightens the unhappy present that the parents and girl-friend are facing - Tom's death at the hands of an Islamic fundamentalist suicide bomber.

On stage he moves in and out giving the sense of his very presence.

Grace, compellingly and movingly performed by Gemma Jones, is a Professor of Natural Science. She has agreed to take part in a 'religious experience'. Is it her desperate attempt to cope with the loss?

The exercise is conducted by an American Professor, Michael Persinger in Canada, whose voice we hear but, like God, we do not see him. The 'God Helmet' is placed momentarily on her head, transmitting electric signals which are meant to stimulate the experience of feeling the presence of someone.

She does not believe in God and objects to any attempt to promote Him. So when her only son, Tom (Elliot Levey), announces his intention to give up his vocation as a criminal barrister in order to become a priest, her outrage and sense of personal failure dominate her remonstrations.

Tom's attempts to explain that he is in search of a better religion do not convince his intellectual mother. He explains that as a lawyer he is more likely to defend homophobic and bigoted people who put bombs on planes, while as a priest he could attack such practice. This argument does not convince his father or his girl-friend, but they seem to make an effort to understand his reasoning.

Tom is a victim of those bigots he hopes to condemn. He is now dead, leaving a devastated mother, father, Tony (Pip Donaghy) and a girl-friend, Ruth (Priyanga Burford), who is carrying his child. Each experiences the loss in his/her own way but together they try to come to terms with it. Donaghy's superb performance provides the exquisite light relief needed when the serious issues are confronted.

We, the audience, are used as 'members of the jury'. We also eavesdrop on a conference addressed by Grace. She presents us with the arguments put forth by the 18th century British theologian-naturalist William Paley when attempting to prove God's existence, dismissing his theory as 'bollocks' with supporting arguments. In addressing the impact of education on the mind of a child she claims that 'in the same way as the child learns language without questioning ... so he is inculcated with religious belief'. We are further told that 98% of children who are brought up by Muslim parents become Muslim.

Professor's Grayling's views on religion are well publicised and it is clear that he does not believe in God. Grace is Grayling's mouthpiece, by his own admission, hence the similarities in the names. The script, however, is a joint enterprise and was co-written by Mick Gordon, who introduces balance into the debate in the course of a truly engaging play.

The play raises some important social and moral issues which are dealt with intelligently. The drama is in the intellectual interaction between the characters which is the basis of the emotional communication. The individual pain of losing a child and the attempts to cope with that loss are brilliantly addressed.

This play moreover provides an excellent opportunity for the proper airing of views on religion and the impact of fundamentalism at a time when sectarianism and religious intolerance are once more rearing their ugly heads in our midst. In words spoken by Grace in the play, ''We've made too many concessions to religious belief. It is one of the most pernicious source of conflict in our world and you, my son, are one of its salesman.'

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson