THERE are many would-be Messiahs striding through Palestine in
Matthew Hurt's new one-man play, and, as Herod Antipas dismissively
splutters, most of them seem to be called Jesus.
In The Man Jesus, Simon Callow (photo, above)
presents a dozen people who met Jesus of Nazareth - from Mary and
Joanna to Lazarus and Pilate. We never hear the voice of Jesus
himself. Sometimes the characters address him in an empty chair;
sometimes they talk directly to the audience about the impact he
has made. It's a flamboyant, memorable performance, although the
regional accents by which the characters are distinguished are
sometimes wayward (Simon Peter comes from Liverpool by way of
Jesus Barabbas presents an alternative to Jesus of Nazareth:
"Join us, the strong, the bold, and the brave - because we are
going to inherit the earth." This is typical of Hurt's clever,
thoroughly researched writing. It references the Gospels in such a
way as to allow those who are familiar with the words of Jesus to
hear them with an unexpected edge. And it makes a compelling case
why the compassion of Jesus would prompt people to leave everything
and follow him.
The destitute and the lost should be welcomed by the followers
of Jesus: "Invite them, because who else is going to do it? Invite
them - and be happy!"
The ideas of Jesus zing with fresh life. Directed by Joseph
Alford on a stage bare but for 20 chairs, Callow makes Jesus vivid
in our imaginations. Dramatic changes of lighting and subtle
underscoring with strings or percussion mean that attention never
wavers for 100 minutes. And Callow relishes some splendidly funny
lines: "Politics is derived from two words - 'poly' meaning many
and 'tics' meaning blood-sucking parasites."
But there is a problem. Although Jesus is brought fully to life,
he is left absolutely dead. In a resolutely downbeat ending, Mary
and Simon Peter trudge with broken hearts back to Galilee. Simon
recalls Jesus's face and the parable of the Good Samaritan when he
sees a beaten man being helped by the roadside. Mary vows to
remember her son's words. But the resurrection that transformed the
destiny of those two people and led to the founding of the
Christian religion does not feature in any way. Not even a
humanist, rational explanation is given: it just isn't
This is not unique, of course: both Dennis Potter in Son of
Manand Andrew Lloyd Webber in Jesus Christ Superstar
stopped their stories on Good Friday. But Matthew Hurt has gone
further. He even gives John the Baptist a speech from beyond the
grave, but the death of Jesus is dogmatically final. And there the
logic of the play fails. How did the characters we have seen become
the transformed founders of the Christian Church if they just
returned home desolate? Why are we so compelled by Jesus of
Nazareth that we want to see a play about him 20 centuries later,
if all that survived was a claim to be the Messiah no better nor
worse than that of Jesus Barabbas?
By sidestepping any suggestion that his followers might have
come to believe that Jesus was the living God, the play leaves us
with a blackout that makes less sense to a Christian than the
resurrection makes to an atheist.
The Man Jesus continues its extensive tour of Britain
and Ireland until 4 November, including a West End date at the
Lyric on 6 October. For dates and venues, visit
www.themanjesus.co.uk, which links to the various individual box
offices, and also gives their phone numbers.