Passion and Paradox: ‘Messiah’ at the cinema, part 4

We’re thrilled to be working with event cinema experts CinemaLive in bringing Handel’s Messiah from Bristol Old Vic to cinemas across the UK and Ireland. This dramatised production, in cinemas for one night only (Wednesday 28th March 2018), retells the Easter story in a striking new way.

Tom Morris OBE is the Tony Award-winning Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic and Associate Director of the UK’s National Theatre. His directing credits include War Horse and The Grinning Man.

We spoke to him about exploring the paradoxes of faith in this production of Messiah

Hi Tom, thanks for taking the time to chat. So obviously the music of Messiah is itself very dramatic, but you’ve chosen to also dramatise the action onstage. How did this decision develop?

TM: I think to a lot of people it isn’t obvious that the music is dramatic! Drama involves conflict and struggle – and one of the opportunities that excited me about this approach is that even though Handel was known to be a dramatist, people don’t tend to listen out for or think about the conflict which might exist in the music. Clearly what we’ve done isn’t the only way to do Messiah, but the decision to ask that question about what the struggle might be in the music – that got more and more exciting as we looked into it.

You talk about trying to capture ‘the drama of belief’ at the centre of Handel’s music, what do you mean by that?

TM: I think there can be an assumption that if you believe in something your natural state of mind is peace and certainty. And that may be the case for some people! But I think there are lots of people whose experience of belief is one of struggle.

Whether or not you’re a believer – I’m not, I’m an atheist – the effort to believe something which is beautiful and impossible, which flies in the face of evidence, to find narratives which bring comfort of some kind at the point of life where we face devastating loss – those efforts are one of the most beautiful things about humanity. They bring with them a compassion which we all know is at the core of being human. They also exercise the imagination. You can’t construct a religious belief which flies in the face of grief’s evidence without imagination.

I’m not blind to the negative associations of religion – but as a director I’m not investigating that. I’m looking at the simple human core of it.

‘You can’t construct a religious belief which flies in the face of grief’s evidence without imagination.’

How did you find yourself grappling with the biblical figure of Jesus in your production?

TM: Handel thought the emotional core of Messiah was the solo aria, ‘He was despised and rejected’, a meditation on the suffering of the crucifixion. It’s beautifully sung in our production – and it feels to me that Handel is taking on in his composition what it feels like to confront the enormity and the absurdity of the crucifixion narrative. That God would subject himself to the most extreme edge of human cruelty – why on earth did he do that? The music seems to give space to the contemplation of that.

Audiences will be watching this production in a theatre built at the same time as the Messiah was written. We think of theatres now as places where we go and worry about whether we’ve understood the play properly! But the very architecture of a Georgian theatre is different to that – the architecture makes it manifest that there are lots of different points of view. 

You try to do something specific onstage, which in this case is using a text clearly relating to the old and New Testament story of the Messiah. The idea is that anyone watching or listening is creating the meaning that they find, from their own imagination and memories and beliefs. I haven’t tried to make a show which expresses an opinion about whether those beliefs are right or wrong.

Some people of faith have found very powerful meaning in this production. I’m really interested in overhearing the conversations this sparks between people of faith and people without.

Do you think this production has any particular challenge or fresh perspective for those who do believe?

TM: The story of the Messiah asks: under what circumstances might a society sacrifice someone or something precious, in order to make peace with its divinities? What happens to a society when that sacrifice is followed through? That’s both completely theologically orthodox and very dark! It’s at the heart of every Christian liturgy but we’re not used to thinking about it. Some of the violence of that story is what comes out in this production.

Then there’s the idea of the rejected prophet – the person whose own society cannot accommodate him. There’s a lot of incredibly inspiring Christian theology which has evolved about the discipline of being Christ among the most rejected people in our society. That has a much political as religious resonance, and it’s something [actor Jamie Beddard] brings to his performance. In my view that is both truthful to the reality of today’s politics of exclusion, and true to the story of the Bible, of the Passion.

Do you think your Messiah has something hopeful to say about the power of faith in the midst of suffering?

TM: Somehow we’ve ended up filing Messiah in the part of our brains that’s about beauty – but the story is very violent, and a lot of the words are too. In the music you have this ecstatic release of grace, in a story where the libretto insists on the dark and challenging paradoxes of the problem of evil! So it isn’t really a question of offering answers to the world, but of inviting an audience to discover what in their experience is echoed or challenged or consoled in this journey.

‘The paradoxes are actually the most enriching and interesting areas.’

For some people, the possibility that there is that kind of struggle in faith will be surprising. The paradoxes, those things in life people find the most difficult, are actually the most enriching and interesting areas. And too often within religion and outside it, those areas of profound brokenness, melancholy, paradox, anger, aren’t reflected on the map.

In Cinemas Wednesday March 28, one night only. Tickets on sale now.

Read parts 1, 2 and 3 of our Messiah blog series. 

Sophie Lister is the editor of the Damaris Media blog

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Sophie Lister

Damaris resources bring films to new audiences, start conversations, and enrich lives. Find out more at Here at the Damaris Film Blog, we publish regular discussion guides to help you make the most of the latest cinema releases.