Paul Cottesloe, National Theatre, London

Painstaking account does not deserve protesters' placards
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The Independent Culture

But while fundamentalists will be far from overjoyed by the way the piece depicts the origins of their religion, would-be protesters would be well advised to bin their placards. Paul does not claim that the famously misogynist saint was a friend of Dorothy, nor does it include the least hint of sodomy.

Instead, this rather restrained and painstaking play - premiered now in Howard Davies's well-acted, rubble-strewn, joltingly modern-dress production in the Cottesloe - offers an intriguingly secular account of the Resurrection and of history's most famous religious conversion, while also acknowledging Paul to be a moral genius whose insights into love form part of the bedrock of our civilisation.

Presenting Jesus as fully human is not a new idea. The twist here is that Brenton's Jesus survives the crucifixion and decides to appear to Saul (as he then was) on the road to Damascus in a desperate measure to arrest the campaign of this most rabid persecutor of his followers.

It's a deliberate political trick that backfires by succeeding to an embarrassing degree. Suffering an epileptic fit at the time, Paul (played by a fervent but insufficiently hire-wired or charismatic Adam Godley) is convinced that he has had a privileged personal vision of the resurrected Messiah whose return to bring the world to an end and to make the dead live again is imminent.

The ultimate born-again convert, he more or less hijacks the cause, much to the suspicion and resentment of the disciples who actually knew Jesus as a man with a mission to purify Judaism (and to speak only to Jews), quite unlike Paul's Jesus, who has a revolutionary global agenda. They let him preach to the Gentiles because they think this will get rid of him for good.

It would wrong, though, to give the impression that this is a systematically reductive and cynical play. It understands the hunger for faith and the seductive power of a conviction as intense as Paul's. We see this in Lloyd Owen's superbly conflicted Peter, who, as he awaits execution with Paul in a Roman gaol, reveals to him the demythologising background to the events that are the substance of the piece.

An effete Nero (excellent Richard Dillane) appears to let the condemned men know of the future he envisions in which, for purely utilitarian reasons, Christianity will be installed as the religion of the Empire. Their martyrdoms will be good publicity for this shift.

Peter knows that the religion is based on a lie, but he also knows that some lies are so morally beautiful they are tantamount to the truth. In an arrestingly ambiguous final sequence, he joins Paul in a mountingly determined chant that "Christ is risen".