I’m honestly not sure if I just went to the theatre or to church – or perhaps a combination of the two. Lucas Hnath’s The Christians is an examination of religious faith in the 21st century, at which we’re not only the audience, but also the congregation, challenged with some tough questions about our beliefs and why we hold them.
It’s a good day in Pastor Paul’s thriving church (located somewhere in America), and the service begins with an infectiously joyful performance from the community choir. But then Paul stands up to preach, and within minutes his words have torn the church apart. Despite years preaching the contrary, the pastor suddenly denies the existence of hell and claims that everyone, no matter who they are or what they believe, is ultimately bound for heaven. A true Christian, he claims, should not judge others, but strive to lead them away from the true enemy, which is wickedness here on Earth.
What he says appears to make sense – and when the associate pastor challenges him unsuccessfully and walks out in protest, it seems clear who’s right and who’s wrong. But as the congregation begin to ask questions, not only about the content but also the timing of Paul’s sermon, the lines start to blur and suddenly the subject’s no longer so black and white. As one congregant steps forward to ask, if everyone’s going to heaven no matter what, then what’s the point of living a good life while on Earth? And what about Hitler – surely he can’t be in heaven too? Faced with growing opposition from his congregation and the church board, Paul struggles to protect everything he’s worked for, both professional and personal, whilst remaining loyal to his own beliefs.
Christopher Haydon’s production sees the Gate Theatre transformed into a church from the moment we enter it. The simple set, designed by Oliver Townsend, is illuminated by a huge neon cross, an organ provides the pre-show soundtrack, and the whole play is delivered through microphones at the front of the stage, becoming effectively an 80-minute sermon. The effect created is powerful; I know I wasn’t the only one who almost bowed my head when the pastor said, ‘Let us pray’.
William Gaminara leads a powerful cast as Pastor Paul. To open a play with a fifteen-minute sermon is no small undertaking, but Gaminara holds the audience’s attention with ease and charm, establishing his character as a skilful public speaker, with the power – for better or worse – to change the lives of thousands of people. Stefan Adegbola plays the young Associate Pastor Samuel, an altogether more complex soul, tormented by what he believes and yet unable to relinquish it. And Lucy Ellinson gives a stand-out performance as nervously questioning congregant, Jenny, who cuts through the religious debate and goes straight to the emotional heart of the play; somehow her tearful arguments make you think a lot more than Samuel’s more academic queries.
The Christians asks some broad questions about religion, with references to the corporate nature of Paul’s church, and the responsibility of religious leaders. But it also challenges us as members of the audience/congregation to consider our own beliefs – whether or not we call ourselves Christians. Do we believe what we do because we want to, because it’s expected of us, or simply because it’s what we grew up with? Just like a real sermon, Hnath’s play sends us out into the world with plenty to think about – at least until next time.
Review by Liz Dyer
By Lucas Hnath
For the last twenty years, Pastor Paul has been building his church.
Starting in a modest storefront, he now presides over a flock of thousands. Idolised by his followers, today should be a day for joy and celebration.
But the sermon that Paul is about to preach will shake the very foundations of his followers’ beliefs. As fractures spread throughout his congregation, Paul must fight to prevent his church tearing itself apart.
This is the UK Premiere of Lucas Hnath’s remarkable exploration of faith and community in the modern world. Featuring a full scale community choir, it asks profound questions about what we believe and why.
8th September to 3rd October 2015
Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, W11 3HQ
Cast: William Gaminara, Jaye Griffiths, Stefan Adegbola and Lucy Ellinson.
Director: Christopher Haydon; Designer: Oliver Townsend; Lighting Designer: Mark Howland;
Sound Designer: Elena Peña; Video Designer: Iona Firouzabadi
Thursday 10th September 2015