Applying artistic licence to Jesus's life-story

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Applying artistic licence to Jesus's life-story was never likely to win many friends among the faithful: the first Christian protests against Edwin Morgan's three-part dramatisation were raised even before he'd finished writing it. Those who have chosen to picket outside Raindog's boldly conceived, grand-scale production, however, rather than going in to judge it on its merits, have denied themselves not only a powerfully moving and uplifting experience, but one which earnestly seeks - albeit from an avowedly humanist perspective - to draw out both the timeless and the contemporary resonance of the New Testament narrative.

Applying artistic licence to Jesus's life-story was never likely to win many friends among the faithful: the first Christian protests against Edwin Morgan's three-part dramatisation were raised even before he'd finished writing it. Those who have chosen to picket outside Raindog's boldly conceived, grand-scale production, however, rather than going in to judge it on its merits, have denied themselves not only a powerfully moving and uplifting experience, but one which earnestly seeks - albeit from an avowedly humanist perspective - to draw out both the timeless and the contemporary resonance of the New Testament narrative.

The primary sources of controversy are Morgan's depiction of Jesus as having fathered a child, within a long-term but non-marital relationship, a scene where the young Messiah smokes an experimental spliff, and His sympathetic response when one of the disciples admits his homosexuality. The first two occur during the first part of the trilogy, wherein Morgan has imaginatively filled in those long stretches of Jesus's early life about which no information exists, and while the notion of Him getting stoned may be extraneous, both are in keeping with the playwright's presentation of Christ as being fully human as well as divine. The coming-out exchange also seems somewhat self-consciously didactic, but regarded proportionally within the production as a whole - which is framed, for instance, at the start of each segment, by a litany of facts and figures regarding third-world poverty, political repression, religious persecution and the like - all are essentially minor matters.

The aforementioned statistics are flashed up on a large screen over the stage, onto which are also projected a plethora of other images, from medieval and Renaissance religious paintings to shots of civil-rights marches and 20th-century dictators. The screen is additionally used to inject an element of Windows-esque computerised styling, each piece being "booted up" at the start, and prefaced with the question "Where do you want to go?" Together with the modern-day costumes - Romans garbed like gangsters, the young, casually-clad disciples looking disconcertingly like a Gap ad - and the full-volume rock/dance soundtrack, all this might sound like mere gimmickry.

The overall effect, however, while inevitably somewhat scattershot, is that of a genuine attempt to bridge the 2000-year gap between the events of the play and the everyday experience of its audience, simultaneously suggesting a host of different issues and arenas where Christ's core teachings might apply or be tested. The adroit selection and placing of the music, too, contributes potently to the drama's profound emotional charge.

In terms of the script, Morgan succeeds substantially in juggling the conflicting demands of the story's human and archetypal aspects, switching deftly, for the most part, between semi-naturalistic, ceremonial and rhetorical modes, although Jesus's oratorical magnetism is rather underplayed.

There are stilted moments, certainly, but again on the plus side, Morgan has done his historical homework thoroughly, giving us a vivid sense not only of place and period, but of the political and religious vested interests to whom Jesus posed such a threat.

Director Stuart Davids marshals his nearly 40-strong cast with considerable imaginative and visual flair, while the whole massive, thrillingly ambitious edifice is anchored by a quietly riveting performance from Paul Thomas Hickey as Jesus, skilfully modulating shades of vulnerability and authority, human doubt and God-given certitude.

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