Theatre and ‘religion’ have been bedfellows since the Middle Ages, back in the days when when the acting profession was condoned within the parameters of the Mystery plays. Of course in this day and age, the adage of “Don’t talk about politics and religion” is especially true in Britain (apart from near-the-knuckle satires, go figure). But where has this reticence sprung from? Maybe in our ‘collective memory’, we recall that siding with a particular monarch and religious POV brought many dangers…
Written by seasoned comedy writer James Cary and starring Anna Newcome, Anna Nicholson and Cameron Potts, A Monk’s Tale is a musical-comedy that delves into the life of Martin Luther, the German monk and theologian whose act of conscience prompted the inception of the Reformation. At this point (unless you’re naturaly interested in religion’s influence on history) you might be thinking this isn’t your cup of tea, but answer this: was Monty Python and the Holy Grail any less funnier for having “the holy hand grenade of Antioch” or the mix-up that involved “Blessed are the cheesemakers”? Or what about “That would be an ecumenical matter!” in Father Ted? If you like these examples of ‘silliness’, chances are you’ll like the tone of A Monk’s Tale: a mash-up of Horrid Histories, Father Ted and Monty Python.
A Monk’s Tale doesn’t assume anyone has prior knowledge of Luther or the Reformation and explains in the simplest terms the world of the 16th century. Nicholson’s onstage persona misunderstands the details or gets things wrong, while Potts’ likes to introduce songs to explain things. Newcome has the authorative, knowledgable persona, but to balance the ‘seriousness’, she gets to do the ‘silly’ stuff like wear the fake beards.
Ok, well playing ‘devil’s advocate’, why do a show about Luther at all? Well this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Interest still not piqued? Luther was a contemporary of Henry VIII and while Luther’s actions aren’t directly related to Henry Tudor, he set a precedent for a break away from the Church of Rome (which at that time had tangible, unilateral political power, as well as the ‘spiritual’ kind). As explained in the show, having a ‘difference of opinion’ 500+ years ago was a dangerous business. To put it into context with some of Luther’s other contemporaries and forebears, Galileo was forced to recant the Earth orbited the Sun; Joan of Arc faced the ire of the RC Church for having her own ‘personal relationship’ with the Saints – thus nullifying the clergy’s monopoly of ‘God’; and Luther… well Luther challenged the widespread practise of the ‘indulgencies’, which resulted in the Papacy absolving reprehensible behavour for large sums of money. In our secular times, no walk of life is exempt from accountability, but even ‘whistleblowers’ today are often on the defensive when challenging a corporation or institution. There are always consequences…
Seasoned playwrights such as John Osborne have tackled the paradigm shift that Luther ushered in. However, even Osborne was able to levity into the proceedings by referring to Luther’s propensity for flatuence, echoing Luther’s own quote of chasing the devil away with his ‘guffs’. A Monk’s Tale doesn’t draw upon this aspect of his past, but it doesn’t shy away from visual gags, wordplay and songs throughout that explain the peculiarities of the 16th century.
A Monk’s Tale runs for just under an hour and even though a lot is packed into the show, it’s fun and has the potential to gone on for much longer.
The importance of Luther and the Reformation is lost to many in society, but as a stepping stone in the evolution of society it was incalculable – a catalyst for the universal recognition of the individual, the self and the freedom of one’s own opinions. Had it not taken place at all, the essence of the parallel history that’s depicted in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights Trilogy wouldn’t be a work of fiction, but very much present now.
© Michael Davis 2017
A Monk’s Tale ran at Canal Cafe Theatre on 4th and 5th July. It will also be running at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.