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A dozen who met the Messiah

19 September 2014

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 Belgravia).

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 mentioned.

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.

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