The latest revival of Coventry’s mystery plays explores links between Christianity and Islam, writes Terry Grimley.
Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre has a long tradition of involvement in revivals of the city’s medieval mystery plays, usually in the ruins of the old Cathedral.
But this year’s Mysteries are taking place in the theatre itself – and striking off in a new direction, with various community groups presenting stories from the Bible and the Koran, including some which appear in both books. In total the production, called The Mysteries in Our Own Words, will feature around 150 performers aged between eight and 40.
Justine Themen, the Belgrade’s head of community and education, explains: “There was due to be a project in the Cathedral this year which we applied to be part of, but for political and financial reasons that didn’t happen, so we took the opportunity.
“The Mysteries has always been a community project but in recent times the community hasn’t been involved in reinterpreting and telling the stories themselves, they’ve just been involved in performing.
“We were looking originally at working on stories with all faiths and black and ethnic communities, but as it evolved we developed a focus on Muslim communities, so that it explores the links between the Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. When we started out we knew about that, but we didn’t know a lot about it. An interesting thing is finding out how many stories appear in both the Bible and the Koran.
“So we began working with Ulfah Arts in December of last year to contact the Muslim community here and ask them how they would like to engage with the project. Ulfah’s approach is really like how we normally work, but it’s a territory we’re not familiar with.”
Ulfah Arts is a remarkable organisation set up in Birmingham in 2004 by Naz Koser, an arts enthusiast who grew up in Walsall and was perplexed that she was not seeing fellow Muslims in theatres and art galleries.
Her campaign to encourage Muslims to engage with the arts, run in partnership with arts organisations, has included a guide to Islamic and Islamic-influenced art in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, a booklet on Islamic responses to the National Trust’s Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton and its Pre-Raphaelite art collection, and an international tour of five Muslim women musicians produced in collaboration with agencies in Holland and Denmark.
Given the religious limitations around Muslim art – notably the banning of representation – it might seem that Naz Koser has adopted a mission of treading on eggshells. She says it took her four years to bring off the Muslim women musicians tour, and the controversy over it still continues on the internet.
“When Justine came to see me I was over the moon because we need opportunities like this,” she says.
“Other people were saying we have this project, can you bring this community in – whereas Justine didn’t have a fixed agenda. That was really interesting for us because the arts in the Muslim community are still new and the community is still making up ideas about how to engage with them.
“There were things we weren’t sure about, but the initial response surprised us. At the first meeting we had 20-25, maybe even 30 people. They were from Coventry and Birmingham and we were very, very pleased. It was completely mixed – male and female and a mixed age range, with really conservative Muslims and Muslims who were a bit more open who don’t wear the hijab.”
These initial sessions, spanning workshops in spoken word, drama and animation, probed the boundaries of what it would be possible to do.
“We knew spoken word was going to be safe because it’s the most popular form in the Muslim community,” says Naz.
“Drama was the one we were least sure about. The participants split across all the groups and it was really interesting. There was even a situation in the animation group where they made these models and then destroyed them. Then someone said what about if we use shadows and there was an imam in the group and they asked him.
“That’s what we as an arts group really want to see happen. It’s our place to say this isn’t a religious project, it’s a creative project. It was suggested we get some imams and scholars on board to say this is what you can do, but for me that’s a bit scary because I think religion and the arts need to be kept separate.
“So I say to people it’s up to them to check with their imams or whatever. We’re just trying to get people to share their favourite stories from the Koran. A lot of people get scared and the more conservative people get more scared, but we never asked them to interpret the Koran, we asked them to take a story and re-tell it.”
As Justine Themen explains, the Mysteries will be made up of a smorgasbord of short performances distributed around the theatre building.
“There are three hours of short performances, and people will get to see about eight different pieces. It kicks off with a piece by a youth group, youngsters from Tile Hill, which is the story of Mary and Jesus from the Koranic perspective, which excludes Joseph.
“At a certain point we split into four different routes, so the idea is that people can explore the theatre’s redevelopment, because some things take place in spaces we don’t usually use. There’s a performance of Samson and Delilah written by Nick Walker of Talking Birds, who has set it in a hairdressing salon run by Phil Stein and Delilah.”
Naz Koser thinks the Muslim involvement reflects a change that has been taking place in the community in recent years.
“There’s been a massive shift over the last four years. When I first started people were very suspicious, but now the Islamic Society of Britain and other organisations are doing more events where they engage with culture. If they now realise they have to start contributing to British culture that’s a good thing.
“I’m very comfortable about being a Muslim and British. I would die for this country and I want to contribute. There’s still lots of debates around women and I think they’re always going to be there, but you realise it’s not about religion, it’s about being confident or comfortable. The day I’m not surprised by people I should stop doing it.”
* The Mysteries, in Our Own Words is at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from July 27-August 1 (Box office: 024 7655 3055).