In our worship of God this evening we are particularly giving thanks to God for, and celebrating, the 25th anniversary of the formation in this church of the Hampstead Players - the silver jubilee of a group initially formed by Graham and Sue Dowell all those years ago. We may wonder whether Graham and Sue could ever have imagined then that the Hampstead Players would still be prospering as they are today. Graham was, of course, Vicar of this church at that time. Sadly, his death a couple of years ago prevents his physical presence with us here today but we may dare to believe that he is with us in spirit this evening. It would have been great if Sue could have been with us on this occasion but there was a reticence at this end about seeking to seduce her for the evening from her home in Clun in Shropshire. Amongst other roles some of us remember her as a delightful Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is somehow a very fitting coincidence that the Players will be staging in a few days time Arthur Miller's play The Crucible because both Graham and Sue performed here in that play when we staged it in 1982.
If this were a memorial service for a departed friend, this address might well catalogue his or her virtues and achievements but this is not a memorial service for a dead friend but eh celebration of the life of a very living organism, and so I shall not seek to detail the achievements of the Hampstead Players. I would just comment firstly that the range of plays which they have tackled [including plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Miller, Robert Bolt, David Hare, T S Eliot amongst others] shows their versatility and commitment and also their courage, and secondly that in many, not all but many, of their productions many of their audience have been hard put to it to believe that this is an amateur and not a professional company.
When we hear of a group of players we tend, I suspect, to think first and primarily of actors, but as we celebrate and give thanks this evening, we give thanks not just for actors , but also for directors and producers, for stage managers and stage hands, for sound and lighting personnel, for front of house helpers, for all who have supported the company in any way, whether as audience, Friends, committee members or whatever and last but by no means least for our fixture of a wardrobe mistress, without whom some of us wonder how many productions there would in fact have been!
It is important to remember both that over the 25 years the Hampstead Players have very largely [though not entirely] consisted of members of this church and also that about 15 minutes before the opening night of each production the cast and others have gathered for a few moments of silence as the blessing of God on their enterprise is sought and everything is offered to God. Some might think that insignificant, but I do not believe so; it is meaningful for the cast and it is always requested.
The Players most recent venture, of course, was to stage, not in the church itself but in the Crypt, a foreshortened version of Hamlet which was put on for four performances and then, with an exciting break with tradition, taken to Touzac in the southern part of France and given another four performances in three different venues. I referred earlier to the Players as a living organism and that tour surely is some proof of it.
It is from Hamlet therefore that I take my text for the more "religious" part of my words for the purpose of what we call a sermon!
"To be or not to be, that is the question".
Hamlet speaks those words in a somewhat suicidal mood, which is shown by the fact that he is deeply pondering "whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them".
Hamlet's question is a question for each one of us, though not in suicidal mood. Some of us may have suffered or may suffer from bouts of depression during which metaphorically we stretch out our arm for the bare bodkin which will end it all. But in fact Hamlet's question need not be a depressing one if instead of contrasting life with death, we contrast Life with a large L with life with a small l.
Jesus came that we might have life and might have it more abundantly. He calls us from life with a small l to Life with a large L. He calls us to Be with a large B from be with a small be. Here, for many of us at least, is the rub. It can be painful indeed to Be, to Be ourselves and most of us, I venture to suggest, use an enormous amount of energy trying to be someone else. Possibly that is because in childhood a parent or teacher or society at large have said, or implied, when we have seemed difficult to them "Why can't you be like young William or Mary down the road" those who at the moment are held up to us as perfection. Or maybe it is just because of the pain of being ourselves; we feel weak but want to appear strong, don't wish to divulge our weakness. We act as if we are strong when we feel weak; we act as someone other than ourselves.
Now actors as we know - not to mention preachers also - spend much time pretending to be someone else and that is so, whether the actor's role is that of Hamlet or Lear or the like or is merely a walk on part with perhaps one line only. They are covering up what they really are in order to be for the moment someone else. They can indeed be escaping from their own reality.
We all know how clowns and comedians, very funny on stage, can be very unhappy and tragic figures off stage; on stage they can for a while escape from being themselves. Richard Olivier, the son of that great actor, Laurence Olivier, tells how his father said to him a few years before his death: "I don't know who I am - I've played two hundred characters in my life and I know them all better than I know myself." A sad reflection on a great actor. Playing someone else can, as every actor surely knows, be very dangerous. Alfred Lunt and Lyn Fontaine, that great husband and wife acting partnership whom I was privileged to see here in London a few times about the middle of this last century were sufficiently aware of the dangers that whenever they acted in plays together as they often did they would live in different apartments, for fear of unconsciously continuing at home in their acting personae. It is very easy to go on unconsciously living the role we have just finished performing, and if we do it is just as dangerous to have been playing a saint as a villain.
But it is not just actors who offstage are to cease to act. They may hold the mirror up to nature and at their best may help each one of us to come to learn who we truly are. But maybe dear old Polonius has it right for us all, actors or not "this above all, to thine own self be true, for it must follow as night the day that thou canst not then be false to any man." To thine own self be true? What does that mean "be true"? Here we come up against the words of Pilate in our New Testament reading "What is truth?" Maybe we come up against those words of Pilate with some sympathy, for perhaps we have, all of us, been so busy acting in life that truth has passed us by, even though we profess to believe with Jesus not only that he is the truth but that the truth will set us free. So long as we act through our lives, seek to be someone other than we are, so long shall we fail to be free; but if we give up acting someone else's role all the time we shall, unlike poor Laurence Olivier come to know who we truly are and we shall receive the truth of Robert Browning's words "But, friends, the truth is within ourselves. It takes no rise from outward things, whate'er you may believe. There is an inmost centre in us all where truth abides in fullness."
It is from that inmost centre of us all, from the truth abiding in us that we are giving thanks tonight for all that the Hampstead Players have given us and many others over the past 25 years, for the pleasure, joy and freshness that they have over the years given to their audience, and for the deeper maturity that being part of the company gives to us so that while enjoying the acting and productions we come to realise more and more that being true to ourselves, touching the truth that is within ourselves is that to which Jesus Christ calls and leads us.
We thank Graham and Sue again for starting it all off and thank God for keeping us going.