Building on a Common Culture; the Latest Revival of Coventry's Mystery Plays Explores Links between Christianity and Islam, Writes Terry Grimley
Byline: 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 partner-OppositeNaz Koser of Ulfah Arts, right, with Justine Themen of the Belgrade Theatre prior to The Mysteries in Our Own Words show ship with arts organisations, has included a guide to Islamic and Islamicinfluenced 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. …