Through it, Brenton examines the very human need to have faith and weighs that against other religious attitudes such as fanaticism, pragmatism and doubt.
Like other secular, modern readings by Dennis Potter, Franco Zeffirelli and even Monty Python, Brenton demystifies Christ’s story and portrays Jesus as a man. In Brenton’s version, central tenets of Christian belief are debunked: the Christ who appeared to St Paul and to others had never died on the cross, but was rescued by his disciples and died, years later, in Syria. Yet his disciples perpetuate the myth of the resurrection. Jesus is married to Mary Magdalene (Tina Arundell), who fiercely protests that the truth about Jesus is being replaced by a mythologised version.
Brenton injects a fresh, modern sensibility to the story of Christ and his disciples, drawing the audience with its dramatic depth and interest. Brenton has the early Christians in Corinth arguing about whether Paul has got it right with his puritanical views on sex. He is at pains to emphasise the patriarchal roots of Christianity and, while Mary Magdalene’s role is small in this mostly masculine production, she is a strong oppositional character.
The play opens with Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus after encountering the resurrected Jesus. Brenton portrays Paul as an innately fanatical character who, before his conversion, zealously persecuted the followers of Christ. He is equally zealous and puritanical when he becomes a Christian.
It goes on to explore how Paul transformed the followers of Jesus from a Jewish sect to a separate religion and took Jesus’ teachings out of Judea and spread them throughout the world. After thirty years of proselytising, while he awaits execution in Rome with Peter, he is told the truth about the resurrection. But his unerring and unshakable faith endures nonetheless.
Brenton’s play considers the concept of faith and examines the relevance of whether or not particular events are true or mythologised. He suggests that the human need to believe is greater than the need for absolute veracity. At the extreme end of faith, however, lies fanaticism and Brenton explores its delusional nature.
Wesley Enoch’s production is taut, compelling and thoughtful, allowing the drama and the ideas equal space. Robert Menzies is magnificent as the single minded, evangelical Paul.
Designer Adam Gardnir’s evocative war-torn set, strewn with rocks and rubble, compliments the contemporary setting of the play – depicting Roman occupied Judea as a hotbed of conflict, rival religious sects and fanaticism. These elements heighten the contemporary Middle Eastern resonances of the play and underscore Brenton’s examination of religious fanaticism.
Counterbalancing Paul’s fanaticism is the doubt expressed by Peter, played by Steve Le Marquand, who is torn between rationally acknowledging that the resurrection is a myth and yet wanting to believe it anyway. Le Marquand poignantly portrays Peter’s prevailing doubt – the inner conflict between reason and faith.
Jesus’ brother, James (Jason Klarwein) embodies the institutional church, wanting to establish rules and hierarchies, and suspicious of Paul’s evangelism. Jonathan Hardy’s camp and sociopathic Nero arrives at the end of the play to cynically and playfully observe the potential appeal of Christianity and predict its future success.
Brenton’s engrossing and thought-provoking play is well served by the talented cast and intelligent direction. It is the strongest and most sophisticated production so far in Company B’s challenging and engaging 2007 season.
Company B presents the Australian premiere of
by Howard Brenton
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 3 May – 3 June 2007
Previews: Saturday 28 April at 8pm, Sunday 29 April at 5pm. All preview tickets $32.
Opening Night: Wednesday 2 May at 8pm
Times: Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday to Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Full $52. Seniors (excluding Fri/Sat evenings) & Groups 10+ $44. Concession $32; Under 27: $32 tickets for Tuesday 6.30pm available from 10am on the day (subject to availability)
Bookings: (02) 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au