A sharp division of opinion was evident after the press night of Bill Alexander and Peter Whelan's retelling of the story of Jesus's birth. I heard a number of audience members remarking on how much they had enjoyed the show; however, everyone I encountered with at least a moderate experience of theatre – students, other actors – felt short-changed by the production, to say the least. Perhaps – and I do not mean this cruelly to Birmingham Rep's Christmas show – we have simply become accustomed to seeing Nativity plays as performed by seven-year-olds, and so judge all live versions of it by those standards. For while this is more ambitious than a primary-school production, it shares some of the same pitfalls and is ultimately, I think, received according to the same standards.
Whelan and Alexander's script is aimed at the entire family; it contains imagined scenes such as the celebration of Joseph's betrothal to Mary, an international convention of astrologers from which the Magi set out to follow the Star, and at one point during the Holy Family's Egyptian exile Mary even encounters the ghost of Cleopatra. As far as I could tell, the only major passage taken absolutely verbatim from the Gospels is the angel's annunciation to the shepherds. Ruari Murchison's design is simple yet striking: a vast, steeply raked circle fills the stage, its central roundel and its outer belt connected to independent revolves; when in their central positions, they combine with the recently redesigned auditorium to heighten a sense of being in a first-century amphitheatre, and when set at differing angles they create a variety of geometrical landscapes.
However, the language of the script is pitched somewhere between a modern, demotic mystery play and a Theatre in Education piece. Alexander's eighteen-strong, predominantly young cast do not have the individual resources to sound natural when delivering such lines, let alone to insert the necessary humour; consequently, almost everyone sounds as if they are earnestly, unthinkingly reciting their roles, not unlike the seven-year-olds mentioned above. Virtually all of a given actor's lines will fall into the same self-consciously declamatory cadence pattern, with little or no characterisation worthy of the name. So totally does the audience enter school-nativity-play response mode that when the three-year-old Jesus enters, his every move is received not with the falling-cadence "Aah!" which signifies a polite "Oh, how nice," but with the broody, upward-tailing "Aaahh!" meaning, "Oh, isn't he just the cutest thing? I want him for my very own..." and so forth. Since the script and production cannot decide for themselves where their sights are set, the audience decides for them, and decide that this Nativity is enjoyable, but in a distinctly unflattering context.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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