The Man Jesus
Simon Callow tears his way through an 'astonishing' cast of historical figures in Matthew Hurt's take on the Gospel of Mark
And so it came to pass: the Lyric Theatre's spring season begins with a suitably seasonal take on that Jewish bloke who, when it comes to dividing opinion, leaves Maggie T in the controversy kindergarten.
The Man Jesus is essentially playwright Matthew Hurt’s humanist take on the Gospel of Mark, the one that was written as contemporaneously to the action as the New Testament gets (i.e. in Syria, decades after the death of Christ).
With the juiciest baritone in the business, the sainted Simon Callow doesn't so much tackle as tear his way through an astonishing range of regional dialects and characters, all eyewitnesses to the moody Yeshua’s journey from taciturn youth to mouthy messiah.
From his meek and preggers Miriam/Mary (a misunderstood Yorkshire lass in the family way) to his strutting, robust John the Baptist (whom he essays here as a kind of autodidactic Scots bruiser, part Billy Connolly, part John Knox), it’s easy to be overawed by the sheer energy and constantly shifting dynamic of Callow’s one man messiathon.
That, along with our over-familiarity of the story, can perhaps make it easy to overlook the rather subtle, near secular recalibration of the Christ story here. In Hurt’s carefully designed script, every aspect of the supernaturalist Jesus isn't quelled exactly, rather explained differently.
From a localised and contemporary perspective, the wedding at Cana has Jesus lustily declaring he will refill the urns with the finest wines with a 'mad glee' playing in his eyes, but then his scolding mother intervenes and does all but lead him off by the ear.
When he heals the blind or even raises Lazarus, there's always a wag on hand to offer up a decidedly earthly, and often earthy interpretation. It’s not that Jesus’ divinity is ever directly challenged per se, just slyly nudged away from the front and centre of our line of sight.
This neat political trick of 'neither confirming nor denying' reaches its own kind of apotheosis when Peter (or Shimon) happens upon a stranger on the road after the crucifixion. He is startled to recognise the face of Yeshua in that stranger. But, like many scouse fishermen since, Peter has a neat metaphysical interpretation to hand for what he’s just witnessed, thus negating any direct concession to the miracle of physical resurrection.
As Mark’s gospel is the earliest of the four sanctioned biblical accounts of Christ’s life, so Callow brings a compelling immediacy to his range of characters, all bearing witness to this charismatic guy with 'those eyes'.
All the while, an assortment of chairs that the surprisingly spritely actor fetches from the back are placed as theatrical and often actual supports for his array of characters. And as these chairs are fetched, arranged, rearranged again and again about this stark arena, they add their own curious character, an abstracted landscape in this otherwise barren stage.
As the man Jesus is essentially unknowable, so the one voice we never hear directly is that of Yeshua’s. Rather we get recollections from a series of extremely subjective narrators – his mother, disciples, brother and even Judas, who is another of those likeable, if slightly pompous Scotsmen of Judea. Judas gets some of the best lines here: 'Galileans get lost in thought, because it's unfamiliar territory.'
Callow lends the most memorable of the characters some unforgettable ticks and idiosyncrasies, enunciating and gesticulating, bringing them mesmerisingly to life. There’s John the Baptist, who even in prison awaiting execution hasn't lost any of his haughty certitude. There’s even a beautifully camp comic turn by Pilate, part Noel Coward, part bored Raj administrator.
Callow gets to wring laughs at the most inopportune moments as this effete and ennui-laden toff languishing in the provinces. 'One doesn't speak Aramaic, one contracts it,' he drawls, and even gives this uber theatrical Pilate a way-too-knowing if hugely delicious aside about 'playing the audience'.
The Uncle Tom antics of Herod Antipas also afford the chance to milk some rich, nutritious laughs, and his barely concealed disgust for a Galilee full of hairy-knuckled terrorists and illiterate sheep shaggers is another triumphant cameo in a play glutted with such.
Most touching of all though is Callow’s sophisticated, idealistic Judas. He's dismayed by Yeshua partying with tax men, hookers and pock-marked poor. He wants a Jesus of militant action, not words. Jesus here says way too much to way too many people, and so words again and again become the bind and the balm, in an occupied land glutted with talkers, yet bursting for some revolutionary action.
Hurt's play seems to say that there is a magic to the song, not the singer, and the way Callow chews up and savours some of his lines offers some enjoyable credibility to that thesis. When Jesus shouts at the blind man to say exactly what he wants, the miracle is in its exclamation, not any act of healing.
And as this Jesus/Yeshua character goes about his 'elaborately plotted suicide', there's a barely concealed disappointment from Callow’s narrator that this broken parody of a king on a cross has replaced words with symbol and cipher – the profundity of language has been exchanged for the macabre fetishising of symbols.
Jesus as man is as unknowable as ever, of course, but with Callow taking us through the life and times of those who knew him best, Jesus as humanist shines all too clearly, and in a way that might annoy some of those who like their biblical passages literal, lifeless and even humourless.
As Hurt says in the programme notes, Jesus is 'an exceptional and strange human being who, irrespective of questions of divinity, merits being heard'.
Quite remarkably, as he's the one character here who Callow doesn’t 'do', Jesus’ enigmatic presence still powerfully pervades the theatre thanks to a thoughtful, smart script, impressively energetic performance and a stack of old chairs. Thankfully they aren’t the only legs this excellent show has going for it.
The Man Jesus runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until April 20.