Paul, National Theatre: Cottesloe, London

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The Independent Culture

The National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, received 200 letters of objection before Howard Brenton's play about St Paul had even gone into preview, and there were doubtless sections of the Christian community that were gearing up for the kind of protests that bedevilled Jerry Springer - The Opera.

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 misogynist saint was a friend of Dorothy, nor does it include simulated sodomy. Instead, this rather restrained and painstaking play - premiered in Howard Davies's well-acted, joltingly modern-dress production - offers an intriguingly secular account of the resurrection, 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 Paul on the road to Damascus in a desperate measure to halt the campaign of this most rabid persecutor of his followers.

He succeeds to an embarrassing degree. Suffering an epileptic fit at the time, Paul (a fervent but insufficiently high-wired Adam Godley) is convinced that he has had a privileged vision of the resurrected Messiah. The ultimate born-again convert, he hijacks the cause, much to the suspicion and resentment of the disciples. The Jesus they knew was a man with ambitions to purify Judaism and to speak only to Jews. The Jesus in Paul's head is a global revolutionary whose second coming is imminent. In Brenton's account, the reasons for letting him go and preach to the Gentiles are mercenary and ironic.

It would be wrong, though, to give the impression that this is a cynical play. It understands the hunger for faith and the seductive power of a conviction as intense as Paul's. We see this dramatised in Lloyd Owen's superbly conflicted Peter. He knows that the religion was built on a lie but, almost despite himself, was pulled in, realising that there are some lies that are so morally beautiful they are tantamount to the truth. Now, as they await execution together in a Roman jail, he proceeds to set the deluded Paul straight.

But a visit from Nero (Richard Dillane) - who taunts the condemned men with the prospect that, for utilitarian reasons, Christianity will become the official religion of the empire - sends Peter back to the human heart of their creed. In an arrestingly ambiguous final sequence, he mutters " Christ is risen" as though chewing a razorblade, but then joins Paul in a mountingly defiant chant.

To 4 February (020-7452 3000)