John Bunyan’s 1678 text
The Pilgrim’s Progress works as an intriguing, if flawed, updating of Bunyan’s classic.
Bunyan’s original text is a religious parable and Searchlight’s production sticks to this premise. Consequently, it is worth being aware of the production’s religious stance. The mission statement of Searchlight Theatre Company is “to produce theatre that challenges people to think about and encounter God.” This is a show with an in-built religious slant and the production chronicles the journey of Christian, an everyman character who experiences an epic trial of faith.
That said, regardless of your religious beliefs, this new production of The Pilgrim’s Progress remains an interesting adaptation of one of the most influential texts in English Literature. In this reworking, Christian (Ollie Ward) is a soldier in the British army, attempting to liberate France alongside his regiment’s Padre, Fred (played by Searchlight’s co-founder and director David Robinson) and his sardonic comrade Guy Wise (Andrew McCracken). Christian battles against various symbolic figures, such as Despair and Pride, all the while attempting to uphold his faith in the face of darkness.
Many aspects of this show are well executed. The production succeeds in capturing the fear and uncertainty that defines the lives of those caught up in war. The acting is also strong. David Robinson delivers a naturalistic and likably warm performance as Fred. Andrew McCracken gets all the best lines as Guy, while Rebecca Rogers, who plays two roles, skilfully uses her expressive face to convey her characters’ multitude of emotions.
The main issue with this production is that setting The Pilgrim’s Progress in the Second World War forces the show to advocate a firmly black-and-white view of history. The evils of Nazi Germany are undeniable and horrific. However many German soldiers may also believed they were following the ‘pilgrim way.’ Depicting the Germans as devils simplifies the complications that define this awful conflict.
Similarly, the protagonists’ attempt to win the war is depicted as analogous with their goal to enter Heaven. Such a comparison could be said to be glorifying war. The ending runs the risk of endorsing the First World War-era refrain so lampooned by Wilfred Owen: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and glorious to die for one's country.”)
Nonetheless, Searchlight director Michael Taylor and writer Rich Hasnip deserve credit for making an intimidating iconic text accessible. The Pilgrim’s Progress works as an intriguing, if flawed, updating of Bunyan’s classic.