A lesson in the actor’s art

Simon Callow

The Man Jesus

Malvern Theatre Forum

****

SO who is this Jesus bloke they are all taking about? That must have been a common question among the Galileans around 2000 years ago.

Was he a terrorist, a political activist, a cult leader or even a religious nutter? Matthew Hurt’s play tries to give us a picture of the man through the thoughts and recollections of those who knew him, based upon St Mark’s Gospel.

Not that this is some dusty, religious tract coming to pass, far from it; in the hands if Simon Callow the Jesus phenomenon of ancient Galilee is brought to energetic life.

Sometimes it is a privilege to sit back and watch a master of the actor’s art, and this is one of them as Callow launches into a host of characters with vibrant enthusiasm.

You know this is going to be a Bible story like no other when it opens with Mary o’ t’Nazereth, a Yorkshire lass in t’family way wi’out a father t’speak of. Immaculate conception was probably not a popular notion in AD zero Galilee.

We come across Jesus’s half-brother James, who finds his sibling strange, and then there is John the Baptist, a tub thumping hell raiser of a preacher man, more River Clyde than Jordan, Gorbals rather than Galilee, a sort of Scottish Ian Paisley who sees Jesus as a bit ineffectual against his own certitude – even after his head is lopped off.

Another of the Galilee Scots is Judas who wants to see action rather than just words from Jesus and ultimately betrays him, Judus is perhaps the most interesting character in the tale, the facilitator of what turns out to be Jesus’s long planned suicide.

Incidentally if Christ’s crucifixion was part of God’s plan thcallow as Jesusen so was Judas, in which case his action, like Christ’s death was pre-ordained, there was nothing he could do about it, which is a key point in another modern telling of the story, Jesus Christ Superstar, but strangely perhaps, is not a point explored by Hurt.

Hurt’s Judas though does have some of the best lines, such as: “Galileans are often lost in thought – because it is unfamiliar territory.”

Simon Callow gives a remarkable performance in a myriad of roles with nothing but lighting and chairs to aid him

Giving the characters accents and personalities also gave them a familiarity as Callow swept about the stage regularly rearranging and moving a pile of old wooden chairs, the only props, which became almost another actor on stage.

Without a word, the setting of a line of chairs became the last supper, their hurling around the stage in an explosion of anger brought Christ’s throwing of the money changers from the temple into focus while the single, sad chair as Judas reaches his inevitable end has an inexplicable poignancy.

If the chairs in Fiammetta Horvat's minimalist setplayed their part, a third part was taken by Mark Howland’s lighting. Callow captivates an audience in this one man play, changing characters with nothing beyond voice and expression for two hours, including interval, which is no mean feat, but he has help from lighting which with just a few spots creates moods, drama and emotions. A back screen also introduces each character by name, putting them into context.

There is plenty of humour in the piece and there are also light hearted characters, ironically the two most responsible for Christ’s death, with Herod Antipas, educated and brought up in Rome, lumbered by being left Galilee to rule by his father Herod the Great, it is a land full of “hairy-knuckled terrorists and illiterate sheep shaggers” as fare as the hedonistic Herod is concerned.

And then there is a rather effete Pontius Pilate who tries to find some sort of common language with Jesus – but not his native tongue; “'One doesn't speak Aramaic, one contracts it,”

Eventually he can communicate, slowly and rather louder than normal, in the manner of the Englishman abroad . . . “Do you speaky Greeky? He does? Thank buggery for that!”.

Pilate also talks about playing to the crowd with the cross, crucifixion and all that as some sort of theatrical performance. A show for the natives. He could have been plucked from a rather dark Carry On film . . . Carry On Up Golgotha . . .

Callow becomes Lazarus, raised from the dead, and rebel leader, Jesus Barabbas, terrorist or patriot depending upon your point of view – the whole place is full of Jesus’s according to Herod -  but the one part Callow never plays out of the dozen or so who pass across the stage, is Jesus himself,

He remains as mysterious, as elusive as ever and perhaps that is what belief is all about, and let us be honest, even Richard Dawkins staunch atheism relies on belief, not proof.

This is a thought provoking piece, taking the story away from Sunday School bible stories, and attempting to look at the man. Whether it works as theology, or really tells us anything about the man is debatable, whether it works as theatre is indisputable. Callow is a wonderful storyteller and his performance is mesmerizing. It is a pity The Man Jesus, directed by Joseph Alford, will not be travelling any deeper into the Midlands on a tour that ends in Oxford on November 4.

Roger Clarke

25-10-14 

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