Friday, October 11, 2019

The First Protestant – thoughtful, unorthodox but effective examination of Martin Luther (Splódar Theatre Company in Crescent Arts Centre until Friday 11 October)

Gerry Farrell’s two-handed play The First Protestant gets under the skin, or more accurately, under the psyche, of the 16th century theologian Martin Luther. The imagined set-up is that an anxious and burdened Luther is sitting in the office of a psychoanalyst.

It’s 1517. As the first act unfolds, we witness intense conversations as The Analyst tries to uncover the motivations and causes of Luther’s struggles, discovering a ‘Father complex’ with his own father Hans, the Holy Father (Pope Leo X) and his heavenly Father, neatly summing up Luther’s main stressors. Later, a messianic martyr complex is diagnosed as Luther hurtles towards confrontation with church and civil authorities.

The agnostic analyst unpicks Luther’s life, teasing out biographical details and theological thinking that paint a rounded picture of the monk and priest who would reject aspects of Catholic practice and teaching. At times the exchanges are jovial and funny, at times they are edgy and angry.

Farrell’s script is tight, and director Prin Duignan backs up the power of the words with simple movement across the simple two chair, table, bookcase and lectern set.

Wearing a black cassock, Michael Roper brings to life the overwrought priest who is struggling with his increasingly realisation that he must speak out and declare “sola fide, sola scriptura”. Roper captures the sense of exasperation, not to mention the impatience with his thoroughly agnostic therapist.

After the interval, Luther returns a few years later having published his Ninety-five Theses and been excommunicated from the Catholic church following his refusal to renounce his writings at the Diet of Worms. Roper’s performance then contrasts the assured and upright Luther confidently articulating his beliefs at Worms with the old man whose mind is sharper than his twisted body.

Opposite Luther sits The Analyst, performed by playwright Gerry Farrell. While initially offering a fairly stereotyped depiction of a psychoanalyst rushing through the gears, picking up on the slightest remark to form some suppositions about his client, Farrell later pulls back and the relationship’s balance shifts as the characters grow used each other.

Farrell and Roper are well balanced, never upstaging each other as the narrative emphasises further important aspects to Luther’s writings and the repercussions. Condemning indulgences has an economic effect on those raising money to pay off loans. Yet Luther is less ‘down’ on people paying to see relics, like those owned by Prince Frederick III who keeps him safe.

“Haven’t you become quite the politician?” asks The Analyst as he begins to unearth the deadly consequences of Luther’s teachings. Now in the 1940s, they meet one last time. What about the slaughter of a hundred thousand peasants? The accusation that Luther could be “speaking out of both sides of your mouth” – having incited the peasants to rebel before siding loyally with the those in authority – brought to mind other more recent though less theological unexplained Protestantism hypocrisy (specifically, Willie Frazer’s assistance in arming loyalist paramilitaries and his later work to support victims and condemning IRA attacks).
“The world will know me as the First Protestant, but I’d prefer to be known as a dedicated follower of the teachings of St Augustine.”
The Analyst notes Luther’s swing from uncertainty and unworthiness to certainty and self-righteousness. But what about the anti-Semitic rhetoric? Luther decries “Jews and their lies”, accusing them of manipulating Scripture, of being murderous and wicked, before suggesting that synagogues should be burnt, and homes smashed, and Jews forced into labour. The ending unsettling yet apt.

Farrell’s writing explores a wider range of Luther’s writings and beliefs than some other events that marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. There are some funny though indulgent knowing nods to the 21st century in the second act’s dialogue (“everyone goes around with their heads in a pamphlet, no one talks anymore unless about your latest post” and “the German banks will always get their money back”).

The First Protestant is a thoughtful play which both entertains and educates, offering an unorthodox yet quite effective way of re-examining Luther’s impact on religion, politics and the world.

You’ve another chance to catch The First Protestant on Friday 11 October at 8pm in the Crescent Arts Centre before Splódar Theatre Compamny’s tour continues to The Playhouse Theatre, Derry (Saturday 19 October) and Factory Performance Space, Sligo (Saturday 16 November).


Unknown said...

Very challenging and informative play. Don't miss it.

DMcC said...

Enjoyed it very much. Great intimate theatre at Crescent Arts.

Unknown said...

This is a very exiting,stimulating and thought provoking piece of work. Luther was the big bang in the Catholic church that created a new universe for Christians. That new universe still has a lot of background radiation which makes this play so compelling in contemporary society. Should get a place at the top table of art, dont miss it.