On Thursday night, I was invited to watch Saltmine Theatre Company’s production of ‘Darkness Falls’ at the Calvary Chapel Bible College, hosted by the Christian Union. Saltmine are a well-known Christian performing arts group, having previously put on acclaimed shows such as Amazing Grace. Tickets cost £3.50 online and £5.00 on the door.
The chosen venue was a homely but spacious Bible Study college that the CU has used for previous events. Hosted by the Christian Unions at both the University of York and York St. John, the show was open to the general public as well as to students. The first thing I noticed when I walked into the hall were trays upon trays of free popcorn. Amazing.
When I decided to review this performance, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to put the experience into words. The play-within-a-play was both unique and almost haunting. Even as a non-Christian, the dramatisation of the gospel of John was incredibly gripping. It was completely different to any other production I have seen, using one set and just five cast members to weave in and out of various character representations both within the Gospel itself and in the ‘real’ setting of a labour camp. There was nothing remarkable about the set itself, which comprised wooden planks, crude bunk beds and a foreboding cage half hidden by scraps of material. It is exactly this simplicity which works so well and carries through the whole duration of the play. Especially impressive was the continued acting during the interval – whilst the audience munched on popcorn, the cast remained effortlessly in character.
The performance begins with the condemnation of John, the author of the Gospel, for spreading seditious words. He is sent to carry out a lifelong sentence of hard manual labour, bunking with a bumbling fool called Lucius, a brutish ex-soldier named Titus, a seemingly agreeable Greek called Timon and a fierce woman transferred from another camp. The convicts live in perpetual hunger and constant fear of the ultimate punishment, ‘the Fall’. For want of some fresh conversation, they ask John to tell his tale. One by one the prisoners take on the characters of John’s narrative, playing out famous scenes such as the wedding in which Jesus turns water into wine, the miraculous healing of the blind man and the resurrection of Lazarus. One by one, the story of Jesus’s miracles touches them in a way that changes who they are – it gives them hope. Using Greek mythology to explain the dangers of seeking a better life through God, Timon becomes gradually more and more suspicious of John and the effect that his story is having on the other prisoners. Lucius transforms into a hugely convincing Jesus, and is so consumed by his new role that he pesters John to continue the story after the other prisoners have fallen asleep. It is Lucius, played by Ben Kessel, who experiences the most profound character development.
In the same way that the Gospel of John treads the path of tragic inevitability, so does John’s time in the prison itself. The story becomes less like a half-hearted distraction from work and dominates the exchanges between the inmates. The Greek, paralleling Judas, betrays John for his own freedom. The audience presumes that this freedom is superficial, as Timon will live out the rest of his days running from his treachery. John and Lucius suffe ‘the Fall’ for their part in disrupting prison life, and using impressive and heavily symbolic stage lighting, they are made to appear to hang in a cage suspended in endless darkness. The multi-layered story again converges with the resurrection of Jesus, and if by some miracle, the prisoners above find that John and Lucius have vanished from their own dark tomb.
The production uses layers of meaning to create a final piece which is incredibly powerful. The Gospel of John is heavily littered with light and darkness imagery, and this was not at all lost on the company, who began the show in darkness and ended it with a flash of brilliant white light. Throughout the performance the prisoners become enlightened, and as the Gospel characters they play are forgiven and healed, on a personal level so are they. Through the merging of John’s testimony and the prisoner’s pasts, each audience member is invited to recognise their own sins and let the gospel offer them hope.
I would recommend Darkness Falls for anyone who has had some exposure to the Bible stories and even to those who have not, however the play was perhaps unsuitable for younger children as it contained dark themes and near-constant references to violence. As per usual however, the CU has organised yet another very thought-provoking and reflective event which included, of course, copious amounts of free snacks.
Saltmine’s Darkness Falls is touring the country until April. You can check out their tour dates and the official trailer here: