Son Of Man, Northern Stage, Newcastle <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

A powerful leap of faith
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The Independent Culture

It's not just the name that has undergone a transformation. Newcastle Playhouse, closed for two years for a £9m development, has doubled in size and relaunched itself as Northern Stage, after the company it houses. Topped by a jagged sculpture that makes as striking a statement as anything inside, the building boasts a remarkable main house, the Epic Stage, surely one of the biggest in the country.

A combination of what were originally two separate spaces, it can - thanks to a moveable acoustic wall - be two self-contained stages. Or, as in the ambitious opening production, it can impress as one vast arena. Northern Stage has also taken the radical step of making admission to all performances in its Stage 2 free, for the first year at least. The new chief executive and artistic director Erica Whyman, known for her work at both the National and the Gate in London, has launched her first season with Dennis Potter's startlingly bold Son of Man.

It made a big impact in 1969 when Colin Blakely took the role of Jesus of Nazareth in BBC television's Wednesday Play slot. Potter, who described the play as "the first I am pleased with", immediately adapted it for the stage. Now receiving in its first revival for 10 years, Son of Man, controversial in the Sixties for its depiction of Jesus as a down-to-earth sort rather than as some benign, divine being, is troublingly relevant.

It describes a Middle East riven with tensions - a war-torn region seething with religious fanaticism, erupting in insurrection, and dominated by terrorism and military violence. And when the battles are won and the territory pacified, the occupying army has "the difficult and unrewarding task of making corpses instead of citizens". Sound familiar? Potter's personal interpretation of the famous story takes us from the 39th day of Jesus' fasting in the wilderness to his death on the cross.

In casting Scott Handy as Jesus, Whyman clearly recognised his Messianic potential. From his whimpering opening on a barren wasteland to his compelling oratory, the mercurial Handy is both steely and electrifying in his portrayal. Initially depicted as an emaciated, dishevelled figure - pondering "Am I the Messiah?" - he emerges as a blazing force with a dangerous edge, a threat to both the religious and the political authorities.

Complementing the bare bricks of the theatre structure, Soutra Gilmour's dazzlingly effective set - a pyramid-shaped set of stairs, a rubble of scattered bricks on one side, a stark wooden cross on the other - suggests disarray, disorder and, most pertinently, a timeless world stage. Whyman, with the help of the lighting designer Charles Balfour, makes it seem both epic and intimate. Adrian Schiller's Pilate, a suave, hawkish manipulator of men, is chillingly clever - a match for the wily Caiaphas of Paul McCleary, whose callous use of Judas casts the betrayer in an unusually sympathetic light.

With an ensemble whose characterisation is unassailable, including a handful of Geordie disciples, Whyman captures the wry humour as much as the pathos of the drama. The audience becomes Jesus' followers, "safe, cosy, smug people with things in common", as he points out in a dynamic Sermon on the Mount. Encouraged by Handy's exhortations (and the surreptitious raising of the house lights) to reach out to our neighbours and raise our arms, there's a ripple of embarrassment when we're swiftly and witheringly chided for not similarly loving our enemies. Not a comfortable evening (Potter pointedly avoided any suggestion of a resurrection), this Son of Man is never less than riveting - a powerful leap of faith for Northern Stage.

To 23 September (0191-230 5151)

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