Jean Meslier to ride again

I haven’t posted here at all this year, so in the interests of proving to the world that I’m not dead or critically infirm, I thought I’d write a quick update. So what have I been up to?

Well, for the first half of this year, I’ve been working on an almost complete rewrite of The Last Priest, my 2007 play about French priest Jean Meslier, who was a secret athiest, and whose posthumous Testament was an early spark of the French revolution. I finished a solid first draft mid-summer, and will soon be meeting with the original group of producers, a cast of new and old members, a new director and a team that is being assembled without my knowledge or input, but in whom I have a lot of trust.

There are no firm dates for a production yet, but there is a new title (still, perhaps, provisionally): Voltaire’s Meteor: The Midnight Zeal of Father Jean Meslier. (Voltaire described Meslier as “the most singular phenomenon ever seen among all the meteors fatal to the Christian religion.“)

I’m also currently thinking of writing a film, not about Meslier though.

Watch. This. Space.

Ones to watch: stars on the rise

Excerpt from an article in the Belfast Telegraph. Original article here.

The arts in Ulster are flourishing; with festivals and venues springing up all over. It’s an exciting time for a new generation of film-makers, musicians and writers – although many of them still have to move away to establish their careers. 24/7 spoke to three promising, young self-starters who could be the big names of tomorrow

David Hall (24) is a playwright, originally from Belfast, now based in london

Former Methody pupil David Hall has caught the attention of the London theatre world with his dark, atmospheric play The Last Priest, based on 18th century French cleric and closet atheist, Jean Meslier.

The play has just finished a run at the well-known King’s Head in Islington, a small pub-cum-theatre that has nurtured talents like Kenneth Branagh, Steven Berkoff, Ben Kingsley and Joanna Lumley (who’s still a patron).

Hall is already in talks with an Ulster film production company with a view to expanding the drama into a screenplay.

Exciting times for Hall, who had barely graduated from Cambridge University when he got his first opening.

“I took a play to the Edinburgh Fringe the summer after I left university – purely for fun, not as a career move. But that play, Crossroad Blues, did extremely well, and a producer who saw it wanted to put on a large-scale production of it.

“Unfortunately, that same producer then went bankrupt, but by that stage I felt tied in to exploring a career in theatre.”

Hall studied philosophy at Cambridge, so when an opportunity came along for a commissioned play about Jean Meslier, the subject-matter drew him like a moth to a flame.

“I got very much into the story. The historical dimension really interested me, as I’ve never read a lot of history, but this was a great excuse to explore – I read biographies of Voltaire and other major figures to try and get a sense of society at that time.

“Obviously, as a philosophy graduate, all the ranting against religion and the absurdities of religious fundamentalism interested me hugely and had great resonance for today.

“There are obvious parallels between the behaviour of the Catholic Church in pre-revolutionary France, and aspects of political Islam today. But I didn’t want to overdo those parallels, either; I didn’t want the play, which already has a great story, to turn into an allegory.”

Hall is juggling a number of new projects, including trying to win the rights to adapt the novel The Master And Margarita into an opera. No less a figure than Andrew Lloyd Webber is rumoured to have considered the very same move, but was too busy with other projects.

The young Ulster writer is also putting the finishing touches to a “dark musical” called Voodoo Blues, which he was commissioned to write, and hopes to see at next year’s Edinburgh Festival.

Talented though he is, Hall is quick to point out he doesn’t compose the scores for his musical work. “You have to know your limitations, and when you need outside help.”

He credits the “fantastic” theatre department at his old grammar school, Methodist College, for getting him hooked on theatre in the first place.

“I was always involved in school plays. I was never a great actor, but I would take smaller parts.”

Of course, Cambridge University, with its Footlights society, and great investment in the arts generally, was another positive experience. It was during this time Hall abandoned acting for writing drama.

His first two plays, The Black Saint and Sinner Lady, reeled in five-star reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe, paving the way for later commissions.

Despite his successes and cautious optimism, Hall points out that disappointments go with the territory.

“If I counted all the projects I’ve been involved in over the last couple of years – probably around a dozen – only a couple have made it through. It is quite gutting when you have an idea and people seem interested, then six months down the line someone says, ‘No, sorry, we’re not interested any more’.”

Interview: Una Bradley
Read more:

The Last Priest – Guardian review

Good heavens – some decent atheist drama

Non-believers these days seem so zealous and shrill. Fortunately, two plays deal the subject in a sympathetic and balanced way.

The prospect of an evening of pro-atheist drama does not normally fill me with joy. Although a fervent non-believer myself, I find advocates of godlessness are more often than not a shrill bunch of didactic zealots. But last night, for the second time this year, my fears were gloriously unrealised.

There seems to be something about producing compelling theatre which forces people with otherwise very strong views to both humanise their opponents and show the flaws in their own position. The Last Priest, which had its press showing at London’s King’s Head yesterday, dealt as much, or more, with the ties of love and friendship than matters of doctrine. True, the atheist priest, Jean Meslier is portrayed as both intellectually right and morally upright, but the only character not willingly living a lie was the devout housekeeper Delphine, and even the obviously hypocritical priest Fr Claude Butler was portrayed with sympathy and compassion.

In On Religion, which ran at the Soho Theatre at the turn of the year, philosopher AC Grayling and director Mick Gordon were actually brave enough to make the ardent atheist the least sympathetic character in the play. Grayling says that he did this because he didn’t want to load the dice, and he trusted the audience to see that the right view does not always have the most likeable of advocates. I thought it also had a quite different effect: the complex emotional interactions between the characters seemed to be a demonstration of the fact that as long as dangerous extremes of belief are avoided, the love and understanding we show each other is more important to living a good human life than the beliefs we intellectual subscribe to.

Grayling admits that he originally thought the play would show that the atheism v religion battle was no contest, but he quickly realised that to make a good drama, you need more balance and shades of grey. The Last Priest’s writer David Walter Hall made a similar point when I congratulated him on creating such a humane work out of material that could so easily have become a secular sermon. “That’s the difference between the synopsis I was given and the play I eventually wrote,” he replied.

What a contrast these plays make with much of the recent atheist non-fiction, which continues to be produced at an unprecedented rate. Devoid of concrete portrayals of human life, they drift towards the abstract, where believers are left as poor, deluded fools and atheists appear no more than dried-out, heartless rationalists. These works fail to convince for precisely the same reasons that On Religion and The Last Priest do: if you are going to change the values that people live their lives by, you need to show a sympathetic understanding of how they actually live them now.

Julian Baggini

The Last Priest – Independent Catholic News review

Atheist and priest: a new play on the life of Fr Jean Meslier

Lovers of intellectual thought and religious dissention are gathering at The King’s Head Theatre in Islington.

The Last Priest, a new play by David Walter Hall, focuses on the life of Father Jean Meslier, a little-known 17th century French Catholic priest who wrote a bitter atheistic testament at the end of his life ­after serving his parish well for 40 years. It was only after his death when the manuscript was discovered that the utter contradiction of his life as a Catholic priest was revealed. Not only did he denounce all religion, he argued the superiority of atheist morality.

The play is a vivid and thought-provoking realisation of Meslier’s socialism and atheistic beliefs played out through discussions with his closest friends and juxtaposed by dream-like discussions with Voltaire, who in his time had praised Meslier as a hero of the Enlightenment.

Julian Bird as Meslier delivers a passionate and absorbing performance, strongly supported by Angela Koo and Maxwell Hutcheson, who both bring vigour and warmth to their roles.

The performances are accompanied by cellist Deborah Chandler and the team deserve a mention for the atmospheric design of the production in this cosy theatre.

Frances Dodd