Edinburgh Festival `99: Fringe Theatre - Corpus Christi: Last humiliation of Christ

Bedlam Theatre Venue 49 (0131-225 9893) 8pm, to 28 Aug
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The Independent Culture
CHRIST WAS gay. A provocative point for debate, an intelligent rewriting of history, or blasphemy? Certainly those waving their placards outside the Bedlam Theatre were in no doubt, as they thrust anti-homosexuality leaflets at playgoers bearing frightening slogans like "The Gay Who Found the Way".

At one point, scenes threatened to become inflammatory as cries of "Nazis" went up from theatregoers - it was a drama that came near to eclipsing the offensive banality of what was eventually to be revealed inside.

Christ's capacity for arousing heartfelt debate will obviously be sparked off by reworkings of his life. Terrence McNally's appropriation of his story to make points about homosexuality was as certain to goad traditionalists into moral outrage as giving the Pope condoms for his birthday.

This is not to say that McNally has taken a cynically sensationalist stance, for there are evidently interesting and painful parallels between those who have experienced anti-homosexual prejudice and a young man who has been martyred after challenging a hostile society with his reinterpretation of its beliefs and customs.

The real problem is that the play's polemic potential is left behind at the starting line, and we are treated instead to two hours of what is mildly entertaining campery.

Mel Raido plays Jesus - or Joshua, as he is known in this play - a young boy growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, who experiences the turning point in his sexuality at the high-school prom, when Judas (Stephen Billington) suddenly seems a lot more attractive than all the girls.

Once he has come to terms with his homosexuality, he then has to deal with being the Son of God, and is taken out into the desert to be tempted by the Devil (who is disguised as James Dean).

The crux of his controversial existence comes when he publicly blesses a gay marriage - and is arrested and then put to death for promoting "immoral" values.

The most astounding aspect of this play is that McNally has taken a powerful story and fundamental issues, and then pulped them into a parade of unamusing anachronisms and shallow analogies. He has neither the gift for language nor the sense of dramatic structure to make Corpus Christi anything more than a lazy rewrite of the Gospels.

Stephen Henry's production goes some way towards saving the evening - the cast of attractive young men forms a strong ensemble, and they ekes what they can out of the flimsy script on offer.

There is also no doubt that Mel Raido - who made an excellent Utrillo in Patrice Chaplin's Into the Darkness Laughing - has the magnetic presence necessary to play such a charismatic role. But he really ought to go and look for a script that's dignified by something better than its opponents' bigotry.