Why do people spend their time at the theatre watching Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, Kinky Boots, or School of Rock? The answer seems obvious – being entertained, moved, taken out of themselves, encouraged to rethink how they see life.
According to Damian Lewis, the actor known for television’s Homeland and Wolf Hall, it is theatre that is the most exciting dramatic form. For both actors and audience, he says: “Theatre is, has always been and always will be, one of the single most important things in any civilized society.”
And the reason why it is so vital, he said in an interview with the Evening Standard, is because “800 to 900 people sitting in a room at the same time as people in that same space is the perfect coming together of shared experience.”
I thought of Lewis’s words about shared experience this week when I read of the commission that MPs have just launched to investigate loneliness. The commission, set up in memory of the murdered MP Jo Cox, is working with 13 charities including Age UK and Action for Children to come up with ideas for change. Their research indicates that as many as nine million people in Britain say they are always or often lonely.
Which takes me back to Damian Lewis’s remark about shared experience. Most of the suggestions about countering loneliness focus on visits to people’s homes and cups of tea and a chat: the person most people envisage as lonely is an elderly person. But not all the lonely are elderly and as Damian Lewis points out, countering it doesn’t necessitate having conversation. Sitting in communal silence can make one feel deeply connected with other human beings.
The Christian churches do an enormous amount of work countering loneliness through groups they organize, and many of them do focus on offering, yes, the all too familiar cup of tea and a chat. But the invitation should also focus on the most powerful thing they have to offer: the equivalent of Damian Lewis’ theatrical shared experience – the communal encounter of God with his people expressed in the liturgy. Lewis in his interview said that shared experience is “truly enlightening for everybody”. The best liturgy is exactly the same. And it can be a similar experience to theatre in other ways – being moved, taken out of ourselves, encouraged to rethink how we see life, maybe even entertained. It isn’t that surprising given drama’s roots in religion.
The atheist philosopher A C Grayling once said to me, somewhat condescendingly, that as people get older, they turn to religion because they are “preparing for finals” – in other words, facing death. And why not? Dying focuses the mind on the important things in life. The Churches offer people a profound way of doing that alongside others, through the liturgy. Shouldn’t this be the message heard most loudly, rather than the invitation to tea, chats, films, and barbecues, which churches promote so hard? Shared experience is not just for theatre audiences. But like a play in the theatre, the moment won’t mean much if the liturgy isn’t the best it could be.
Catherine Pepinster’s book The Keys and the Kingdom – the British and the papacy, will be published this autumn by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark.