To the National this evening to see, or perhaps it should be to hear, Bach's St Matthew's Passion given a fresh new staging by Jonathan Miller. It's a deeply humanist reading, taking the score from the formality of the raked church choir and plonking it into a rough and ready workshop where the singers in rehearsal baggies wander in and out of the space, occasionally joined by solo musicians whilst simple props hint at our unsophisticated understanding of God's glories and the poverty of our response. It has an air of humble spontaneity that perhaps allows us to listen to the story afresh. All this endeavour is almost spoilt by staging the work in the vast, restless and occasionally muffled Olivier, but the beauty of the music and the wonderful voices triumph.
There's a popular tradition in the British theatre of being informal with the bible. Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar made the word of God trendy for the 1970s and The Globe's recent production of The Mysteries crucified Jesus in blue jeans and a white T-shirt. Whilst Miller's work follows the everyman approach and eschews religious hierarchy in favour of a more democratic presentation, it, more than any of the other examples, succeeds in appearing natural and unforced, as simple, sleek and nerveless as a band of travelling players rolling into a strange town and setting up in the market square. No nods, no winks, just the best way to do the job. This is a production that, in every way, places faith in simplicity.