In aid of the Oxford Oratory’s Reaffirmation and Renewal Campaign, The Play of Herod follows the rambling reminiscences of Tom the Shepherd. Present at the birth of Christ, a follower through his ministry, and a friend at the foot of the Cross, Tom’s down-to-earth telling of Jesus’ nativity is interspersed with meditative motets from a colour-coded choir.
Celebrated actor Robert Hardy relished every nuance as Tom the Shepherd. Narrating in a lilting rustic accent from St Aloysius’ pulpit, it was a perfect performance. Awestruck at the angels, buffeted by the ox and the ass, Hardy’s Tom was funny, down to earth and faithful.
Julien Chilcott-Monk directed two of his choirs – Vox Humana and Gregoriana – as well as singing the part of Herod. The performed version of the Play, expanded by Chilcott-Monk to include the part of Tom and additional motets from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, was sung in English, with only the motets retaining their Latin. It was an ambitious vocal performance in a large-scale venue. No wonder there should be a few early instances of singers going astray, chasing after the plainchant rhythms. But the massed voices created a lush, warm glow for a pre-Advent November evening, suited to the meditative purpose of the play.
From his entrance as narrator, striding down the aisle in suit and hat, to his assumption of the role of Tom, with shepherd’s smock and cane, Robert Hardy was the consummate professional, his unamplified voice filling the church even before ascending to the pulpit microphone. Presumably without much rehearsal, he kept admirably on track, resuming his reminiscences after each choral segment. His texture of voice was impressively suited to each aspect of the drama – reverential awe, outrage at injustice, the repetitive remembrances of an old man. His piping-voiced imitation of Herod’s wise young son was a comic joy. So too his unexpected – and accurate – imitation of a camel’s guttural sound. Hardy’s willingness to support a local production and his generosity of performance, tell us something of his status as a national treasure.
Christmas is coming and Vox Humana, Gregoriana and Robert Hardy have stolen a march on the season with The Play of Herod. Even the surprising pre-play Lord’s Prayer seemed absolutely right. Meditative music, a holy setting and well-voiced words made for a memorable evening.