John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is a fairly hefty tome to adapt for the stage. I read it many moons ago when I was deeply studying contemporary preachers and theologians (most notably George Fox) of Bunyan’s. I wondered how Richard Hasnip and David Robinson would adapt the text for the stage. I also had reservations, is it really a tale that is applicable to 21st Century people? (as an aside Catherine Trieschmann writes some of the best in my opinion, modern plays dealing with faith and 21st century living, click here for a review of one of her plays)
This production had been organised/sponsored by a local evangelical church and the audience was primarily made up of them and two other local churches. I felt like a lion in a den full of Daniel’s. I’ve often said on this blog that I go to the theatre to be challenged and changed, so I sat back and waited for the play to begin, conscious to not be too biased against the message I knew that was about to come.
The cast of Simon Rodda, Anna Turner, Ben Kessell and Hannah Miller, ably and skillfully presented the numerous characters each needed to perform to bring this story to life. They managed to bring comedy and a light touch when needed, which was an effective contrast against the sadder and more dramatic moments in the journey the character Christian makes.
Christian was played by Caleb Mitchell and he portrayed his journey of ups and downs with the necessary struggle, fear, grit and determination that Christian has on his journey to the Golden City. The scene where he comes to the foot of Jesus’ cross and the huge rucksack he’s been carrying all this time, symbolic of his sin, suddenly falls away was an especially moving moment.
The set was a simplistic scaffold frame, but it was utilised in a number of creative and clever ways, I especially like the creation of the lions and when it became Despair’s den. Projection was used to highlight a few scenes but I liked the fact it was about the actors and the story, not special effects.
Now as you can see I enjoyed the acting, setting and I think the adaptors have done a splendid job in adapting this large piece of old literature. BUT, I have to say I have reservations about the story; I really think it has dated. It lacks any form of subtlety, the characters are all called after the rather one-dimensional stereotypes they are, Christian, Despair, Hopeful, Faithful, Silver-Tongue etc. and the adding of Atheist and Junkie I felt didn’t help to make it more contemporary, rather those characters appeared incongruous to the whole piece. To even call it an allegory I think is a mistake as there is nothing hidden or symbolic.
In a world where we are accustomed to C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien and their subtle allegories, I think Pilgrim’s Progress doesn’t stand up too well. As a plot it is also blindingly obvious that he’ll get to the Golden City and when we are told at the close of act 2 that Christian or Faithful will die in Vanity Fair, it is no surprise to find out it’s Faithful a few minutes later.
I also wonder how someone with no Christian background would find this story? I honestly think it only makes sense to those with some Christian (and specifically Protestant) background.
So I’m glad I went, it made me look back at a tale I knew from a long time ago and it rekindled a sense of the journey we all take in life, I could certainly recognise characters and situations that resonated for me. The cast were great and I think the adaptors have done a very good job. (I suggest they publish their version as I’m sure lots of religious school groups would like to put this version on), but I think the problem lies with Bunyan and even then it’s not his fault that a tale he wrote 300 years ago doesn’t resonate much anymore, as Christian allegory has moved on, as has the world in general.
STARS : * * * (and a half)