4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
FOR THOSE WHO believed that religious faith would inevitably fade into the past, as we moved into a new millennium, the emerging political landscape of the 21st century – with its high-profile and often brutal religious fundamentalism – has come as a profound shock.
What secular unbelievers often fail to notice, though, is the ongoing battle within all faiths between fundamentalists who believe that unbelievers are literally damned, and liberals willing to accept that there are many ways towards God; and it’s this schism that is explored in thrilling style in The Christians, by young American playwright Lucas Hnath, a story of faith and division in a large and wealthy gospel congregation, brought to the Traverse this festival by the Gate Theatre, London.
As the play opens, a 20-strong choir (Song Works of Edinburgh) sways and sings on stage in purple robes; then the four-strong cast enter, and take their seats in front of the choir to listen to a celebration sermon from distinguished Pastor Paul, superbly played by William Gaminara, who has decided to mark the occasion of the church paying off all its debts by suggesting to his loyal followers that there is no hell, and that a good deed represents as sure a way to heaven as any profession of faith.
It’s a sermon that triggers an explosive response, not only from Paul’s angry young deputy Joshua (Stefan Adegbola), but also from the Board of the church, represented by a superbly ambivalent David Calvitto as the Elder, from Lucy Ellinson as a young woman church member who feels betrayed and used, and from the pastor’s wife herself, beautifully played by Jaye Griffiths. And what’s most striking about this passionate, timely and riveting 80 minutes of drama, deftly directed by Christopher Haydon, is how it reflects not only a vital debate within the world of faith, but much wider questions of leadership and belief; and wrestles with the harsh truth that groups so often seem to need a sense of an “other”, a flawed and damned enemy, in order to maintain their sense of community, and to avoid the kind of disintegration that gradually wrecks Pastor Paul’s life work, leaving his church powerless to achieve anything at all.