Who dare play the Superstar?

08 February 2011

Impersonating Jesusis a sensitive matter, says Michael Caines


“IN THEATRE, if not in the churches, Jesus is alive!” This bold statement, complete with the enthusiastic exclamation mark, appears towards the end of Jesus Centre Stage by Tony Jasper and Kenneth Pickering.

The evidence takes the form of an impressively wide-ranging survey of theatre on Christian themes, principally starring Christ himself, but also descending to con­sider mere mortals such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Monty Python’s hapless Brian. Here are medieval Mystery plays (pithily elaborating on hints from the Gospels), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice bring­ing the Passion to Broadway (“Smile, Jesus Loves You”), T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, a bluegrass version of Matthew and John (in which Jesus is lynched, “Southern style”), The Guantanamo Years (as performed by an Irish stand-up comedian, Abie Philbin Bowman, and boycotted by Ian Paisley), and numerous other variations on a theme.

Jesus Centre Stage usefully summarises and categorises this diverse material, putting it in the context of long-running debates about depictions of Jesus in the theatre or in other media. Apparently, backward theologians and knee-jerk conservatives, like predictable pantomime villains, have long struggled to stamp out such poten­tially blasphemous activities; the authors quote Archbishop Randall Davidson’s response to news of a play submitted to the Lord Chamber­lain’s Office in 1924, long before its powers of censorship were abolished, a play called Judas Iscariot: “I wish they did not write these plays!” Even playing the “Anima Christi”, the spirit of Christ, four years later, at Canterbury, in a reverentially written nativity play by John Mase­field, the actor in question chose to remain anonymous for fear of con­demnation.

Although their polemical purpose is clear enough, the authors of this book could have done with some careful proofreading and advice on theatre history (their lop-sided account vaults hastily from the Middle Ages to the past century). In “practical terms”, they regard the difference between impersona­ting Jesus and merely saying words that he spoke or presenting his deeds (those medieval Mystery plays do the latter) as a “subtle distinc­tion”.

This is to underplay a somewhat important issue in both the theatre and the Church. In the theatre, since the time of Denis Diderot at least, there has been argument about whether the art of acting is funda­mentally a mechanical process, de­pendent on the individual actor’s feeling nothing and behaving like an automaton, or one of embody-ing a role through deep empathy — the path to Method acting. As for the Church: well, is bread merely bread? Or is it, after all, Christ’s body?

With considerable experience between them as theatregoers and theatre-makers, Jasper and Picker­ing have produced a book that may well, as they claim, interest anyone who actually has to play Jesus on stage, as well as those interested in the relationship between religion and a supposedly secular culture. Above all, it is a vindication of the arts, which are to be “taken seriously, studied, worked at and respected”, and what might be called their right to Jesus.

Michael Caines is website, biblio­graphy, and reference editor at the TLS.

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