Writer Chris O’Connell talks about his shows ‘The Messenger’ and ‘The Return’ to take part in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s and Coventry City of Culture Trust’s inter-faith event ‘Faith’

We all have our own definitions of what faith means to us, driven by our own set of ideas and beliefs, whether religious or non-religious, faith is what powers each and every day. Exploring this complex notion further, the Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with the Coventry City of Culture Trust present Faith, a two day inter-faith event, from the 10th to the 11th September consisting of music, theatre, art installations, rituals, discussion and dialogue. A feature of the event, writer Chris O’Connell will debut two plays taking part – The Messenger and The Return. Chris tells us more about exploring the show’s narratives further, the creative process and what it means to be a part of this event celebrating Coventry’s rich inter-faith heritage.

Hi Chris, you’ll be presenting both ‘The Messenger’ and ‘The Return’ as part of Coventry City of Culture Trust’s and Royal Shakespeare Company’s co-production, Faith. How are you feeling ahead of the shows?

I’m filled with excitement and nervousness. Excited to hear my stories about Coventry, spoken before Coventrians. Nervous because it’s a new piece of work – that always makes me nervous!

The Messenger, starting off at Stoney Stanton Road, follows lead Baani, as she faces the imminent death of her mother. Tasked with getting a message to her father, she agrees to meet him at Pool Meadow Station, a journey she’s never made before. What inspired yourself to explore this narrative further?

I was interested in awakening – in someone so young (11), a moment in time that demands interacting with a world that is many ways is still a mystery to innocent eyes. Equally, I wanted a structure that could allow me to introduce a host of characters living and breathing their experience of the city and of Covid (it takes place timewise last April) as Baani makes her journey. I also wanted a story that could provide jeopardy – something with big brush strokes that would feel robust out on the streets – so I thought a lot about Greek drama, the mission, the task against all the odds.

You’ll also be presenting ‘The Return’, taking place on the cathedral steps as two friends are reunited after almost 40 years. What inspired yourself to explore this narrative further?

I left Coventry myself in the early 80’s and returned in the early 90’s. There’s something about leaving your place of birth and then being filled with a desire to return that interested me. We got talking about it in the writing team last year when we were imagining what stories we might tell. The mechanics of faith that are connected to belonging, to one’s sense of self, to say no, I reject my place of birth, my people, it’s not enough for me right now, I see my life elsewhere – And the opposite, those who stay, who never lose faith with the place they are born in, or the people they see and spend time with every day of their lives. I was also keen to explore ideas about modern place making – what does that mean? What equips a city to thrive, what defines a city, the people or the buildings that are put up around the people? How can cities and communities become more equal in decision making?

How have you approached creating both shows?

Alongside my co-writer Chinonyerem Odimba, director Erica Whyman, and associate director Jen Davies, a lot of time last year was spent on Zoom! (of course!), and we started off by talking about and agreeing that faith is not an easy concept to pin down – religious faith, non religious faith, faith in each other, what we need from each other in times of adversity, what it means to be together, the possibilities for faith going into the future, were all interrogated. This happened alongside other Zooms in which we talked to a variety of faith leaders in Coventry, hearing and learning about the ways in which they work for and sit at the heart of their communities. In particular, the question about our faith in each other felt like a very rich seam for me, both because of the pandemic and our collective experiences, but also because of ongoing systemic fault lines in our society regarding power, inequality, race, and justice.

Faith, directed by RSC’s Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman will invite the diverse faiths of Coventry, a proud interfaith city to immerse themselves through music, theatre, art installations, rituals, discussion and dialogue. What does it mean to be a part of this important event?

It’s part of the tapestry of living in a great city like Cov, it’s exactly the kind of thing a City of Culture event should do because we are all Coventrians, and we have a harmony amongst our many communities and our faith communities that we should celebrate.

What can audiences expect from both shows?

I have tried to embrace the contradictions and complexities that come with living in a city. Certainly with both of my stories I’ve set out to be always honest about Coventry – it’s not perfect, what city is, and so I want to stir people to thought, but I also want to celebrate it for its compassion, its authenticity, and its people.

What would you like for audiences to take away from both shows?

That their feet don’t hurt too much, and that their hearts are full!

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

Faith takes place on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th as part of Coventry City of Culture. To find out more about the events taking place, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop