Pagliacci – Scottish Opera ****

Paisley Opera House (aka a tent on Seedhill Playing Fields in Paisley)

Scottish Opera’s summer show in Paisley is a completely immersive bundle of fun that manages to be innovative and hugely entertaining.

It isn’t difficult to see where the idea of putting this show on in a big tent comes from. Pagliacci (The Clowns) is all about a troop of performing players coming to town. It just happened that this troop had turned up in Paisley and were putting on a show for a local gala day – the Sma’ Shot festivities.

There was a strong sense of local festival as soon as one entered the tent, with a range of sideshows – a magician, fortune teller and a real Punch and Judy show alongside games like Pin The Tail on the Donkey. It was a brave decision on the part of Scottish Opera to have an actual donkey wandering around too, given the recent debacle of the Eugene Onegin’s horse. However, no-one disgraced themselves and a good time was had by all, not least the three people who won the raffle and got to conduct the orchestra in some well-known operatic overtures.

By the time the singing started, it felt as though the show had been going on for some time.

With all the fun of the fair going on all around, the danger was that the singing might not matter that much. Fortunately this was a strong cast and in fact the singing was excellent. Particular praise must go to Ronald Samm for his utterly superb Vesti la guibba that ended the first act. The fact that he was surrounded at close quarters by the audience, who were invited to move about the tent to wherever the action was, didn’t distract him from an astonishing display of heartbroken anguish.

A huge chorus of both amateur and professional singers were mingling with the audience throughout most of the production and it was genuinely thrilling for the singing and the action to break out all around you as you tried, generally unsuccessfully, to work out what might happen next. High points included the entrance procession of the players and the sudden, stunning reveal of the stage (made out of a road-truck) for them to play on in the second half.

It is to the director, Bill Bankes-Jones’s credit that the pitiful tragedy of scorned love was perfectly balanced with the comedy and high jinks of a show that was hell bent on blowing away even the most jaded cynicism. By the end of the evening, what had we witnessed? A fun filled tragedy? A comedy beset by human misery? Both, surely, and more.

One hour 40 minutes is a bit long for a promenade performance, particularly as the audience didn’t move about quite as much as I suspect they were expected to do on what was a very hot July evening. However, the standing about all felt well worth it for a surprise summer hit.

The Orchestra of Scottish Opera were about the only ones who got to sit down all night and, apart from some repeated split notes in the brass section were on generally good form under Stuart Stratford.

All in all it seems like a shame that this show will play for a run of just three performances. It was an enormous effort for a relatively small audience and could easily have sustained a longer run.

The troop of performing players that rolled up into Paisley done good.

Done very good indeed.

Rating: ★★★★☆

This review first appeared at Scene Alba:

Sermon preached on 15 July 2018 (Pride Weekend)

Is this the word of the Lord?

Is this the gospel?

“What should I ask for” said Herodias.

“The head of the Baptist” said her mother.

And it was so.

And where is the good news in any of that?

It is one of the worst, most barbaric and miserable stories in all of scripture.

Herodias whom we know by the name of Salome in popular culture danced before the tyrant and demanded the head of the one who had stood up to Herod as he rode roughshod over the law.

(David on the other hand, danced through the streets for joy in the first reading and distributed food for everyone – but we’ll get to him later).

What about Salome? Why do we read this sorry and sordid tale?

This is not some saucy burlesque after all but a dance of death.

Where is the good news to be found?

This story comes around quite a lot – we get rather a lot about the Baptist in the lectionary. We get this story on this Sunday and we also get it for the day we remember John the Baptist’s death too.

This is not a story which ends with all the boys being brought safely from the dark and frightening cave. It is the story that ends with John’s state sponsored arbitrary execution.

Every time I read it, someone asks why.

If I’m honest, I sometimes feel the same when I am reading it too.

People will know that I rather like the theatre.

Going to the theatre is what I do when I have time off.

I am apt to get myself to places where there are lots of shows on and just book things that I fancy on the off chance that they might be that great night out that you will remember forever.

(Which is how I once booked myself tickets for the Tempest and spent the first few lines thinking that I didn’t remember the sailors in the storm being Russian sailors and got a full five minutes into what is, to say the least a long and complex night out before realising that the whole thing was going to be in Russian).

And I did the same with a production by a famous theatre producer of a play by the famously witty Oscar Wilde and glued to my seat in horror when I realised that Salome, the title of the play was not the story of some saucy socialite but just a retelling of the horror story that I’ve just read from the bible.

To put it bluntly – there are no jokes here.

But when people ask why we read it in church my answer is always the same.

We read it because it is true. We read it because brothers and sisters are suffering. We read it because John the Baptists who stand up to power still end up in prison cells. We read it because conniving plotters like Herodias and her ma still send good people to needless and pointless deaths. We read it because people still suffer under Herods.

We read it in short because tyrants still exist. And it is fear of similar tyranny that brought people out onto George Square in protest on Friday evening.

We stories like this it because notwithstanding the good news that Jesus came to share, he came to share good news so that we could share it with those who need it most.

We read it because it is true. And we’ll keep on reading it until it is true no more.

For standing up to abuses of power is surely a part of who we are and what we do.

Yesterday, I stood for hours, literally hours, in Kelvingrove Park listening to people talk about their experiences of faith and of the church.

It is a shock for people to see someone in a dog collar at a Pride celebration (or an anti-Trump protest come to that) and dozens of people wanted to chat.

And I spoke to people who wanted to change the world like John the Baptist and speak truth to power – not least yesterday, those leading the campaign for Inclusive Education in Scotland – their time has come.

Scotland’s children need them to win what they asking for.

And over the last 28 hours, I’ve spoken to people who were dressed a little differently to most of you here this morning. People who, like John the Baptist like to dress in things that wouldn’t look so respectable in Byers Road. There were not so many hair shirts on display yesterday but there were one of two leather girdles a bit like John used to wear.

But my predominant memory is of speaking to one John the Baptist after another who are trapped in caves of despair. And who think that the church is the evil empire and that Herod is in fact one of us – for people who look like me look all too much like the oppressor to them.

A particular memory of yesterday is of speaking to dozens of heart-broken Roman Catholics who feel lost and abandoned by their faith.

We never talk about that kind of thing in ecumenical conversations, which is why so many ecumenical conversations are so utterly futile and why the ecumenical age is all but over.

There will be no new ecumenical spring until we can talk about the difficult things like heartbroken Roman Catholics at Pride and about the way our streets in the summer are taken over by those claiming to be protestants banging drums of hatred.

There was different drumming on our streets yesterday.

The Scottish Episcopalians at Pride were just in front of the Co-Op brass band who encouraged us around town and up Blythswood Hill to a small selection of well-known disco hits.

As the road became steep they broke out into Abba songs of years ago.

“Do I look like a Dancing Queen?” I wondered as they blasted it out behind us before deciding that I probably did and that the only way to keep going was to shimmy.

Which brings us to David dancing for joy before the Ark of the Covenant.

The murder of the Baptist by Herod with the connivance of Herodias and her wicked mother is one of my least favourite readings in the bible. But we read it because it is true.

The story of David dancing through the city in a linen kilt to the scandal of those who thought they knew better including his wife, is one of my absolute favourites.

We read that story because it is true too.

We dance when we’re in love.

We dance because we are happy and full of joy.

And we dance because God is good.

David dances as though no-one is watching, even when he knows they are.

And if ever there was an example from scripture to emulate, I want to dance like David before the Lord.

The things we read in scripture are true – all of them. The horrors as well as the loves.

The Lord gives us choices.

To walk the way of the tyrant. Or to protest and shout for justice from the earth.

To dance the dance of death with Herodias. Or to dance the dance of life with David.

Choose life – and all the earth will be fed.

Choose life – and dance through the streets for joy like no-one is watching.

Choose life – for what other choice is worth making.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit. Amen.