Theatre: The Gospel according to Terry

Corpus Christi Pleasance Theatre London
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The Independent Culture
AT THE opening of Terrence McNally's play, Muslim fundamentalists outside the theatre waved placards, shouting "Gays will die". One braced oneself for the inevitable fatwah, and come it did in all its despicable obviousness.

Performed in a presentational style by an all-male cast, the play reimagines the New Testament with the Jesus-figure growing up as a gay teenager in Fifties America. Do I defend the right to put on such a play? Absolutely. Did I like it? No - and partly because I think it conveys its message of tolerance in a contradictory and illogical manner.

The conviction behind the piece is that no just, self-respecting God, who had gone to the trouble of fashioning man in his own image, would then render himself exclusive to one group. And, what with the Soho pub bombing and the case of the Wyoming youth tied to a split-rail fence, tortured and left to die because of his sexuality, one can understand why gay people might begin to develop a Jesus-complex. One problem with the play, though, is that in simply redressing the balance, it runs the risk of promulgating its own exclusivities. To judge from this show, you'd have to be young, drop-dead cute and male to become one of Jesus's in- crowd.

Stephen Henry's Theatre 28 production is well drilled and attractively performed, negotiating with skill the shifts between high spirited campy anachronism and deep, timeless feeling. But the piece itself is awkwardly straddled between competing moralities.

In the traditional story, the Judas figure seems to get a raw deal. Here, Stephen Billington's Judas starts off as a cocky sexual predator; then, through a tastefully depicted affair with Mel Raido's gently compelling Joshua/Jesus, he becomes man enough to resist the temptation to betray his partner. The kiss in the Garden of Gethsemene may signal the start of the tragedy, but is a public statement of love and loyalty, not turncoat treachery. So why then does Joshua at the Last Supper say that it would be better for the man who betrays him that he had never been born? The injustice of Judas's fate - forced to read out the Passion sequences from the New Testament - seems consequently all the more monstrous.

At the start, the actors are baptised in turn with the words "I recognise your divinity as a human being." My difficulty with the play starts there. Why give this well-intentioned plea for tolerance a religious framework at all? Wouldn't we be on firmer ground if the piece were rooted in a secular form of self respect, of the kind the poet Stevie Smith captured when she wrote: "To be trivial and idiotic, and to live with this feeling, is to be a hero in a way no God can be."

To 20 Nov (0171-609 1800)