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views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Corpus Christi
The Space
30th November 2013

★★★★☆

Stephen Gibbons as Peter playing Mary

Photography © Katherine Rodden

Given Outfox Productions have chosen to put on a retelling of the Gospel which involves many of the main characters being gay, they've cast a mixed race actor as Jesus and, if that's not enough, staged their production in a church in the run up to Christmas - you can't help but wonder if they're being deliberately provocative. Russell T Davies managed to write a show about the second coming which didn't involve changing the sexual orientation of all the main characters to mirror his own - yes, really, even he pulled that one off - so whilst waiting for Corpus Christi to begin, it's not unreasonable to wonder whether Terrence McNally had a point. There's offending for the sake of it (early South Park) and there's offending to make an artistic point (The Book of Mormon).

The story is set in Texas, touching on the birth of Joshua (Andro Cowperthwaite), but mostly focusing on his awkward upbringing, the bullying and intolerance and ultimate demise. Throwaway humour crops up from time to time, making Corpus Christi nigh on impossible to describe - it's an odd combination of traditional nativity meets Christmas panto meets horror movie. That's not to say this isn't a worthy play, but it's certainly a very unusual one. Director John Fricker constantly changes the tone. Making the disciples gay is down to McNally, but Fricker ensures that any Christian jokes (such as Jesus feeling like his parents aren't his natural parents, ba-ba-boom) are delivered in a playful way, rather than overly mocking one.

With a cast of 13 - all the disciples and one messiah - it's very much an ensemble piece. Joshua and Judas (JP Lord) naturally stand out, in any telling or retelling they have to be the leads, but here they are love interests, with Judas betraying Joshua out of romantic jealousy rather than pecuniary greed. If you're going to take issue with the play, it's right here - should Judas's motivations be changed? Well, in the context of theatre, the irrational nature of love and attraction makes for a shocking, understandable and damning reason to betray someone - perhaps even more hard-hitting than giving someone up for 30 pieces of silver. It's certainly a controversial move.

Set and costume designer Gina Rose Lee is responsible for the giant, fragmented silver cross which is a striking, overbearing presence through the play, even when it is being ignored by the characters, it is a reminder that Joshua's father is always in the background of his story. Lee is also to credit for the simple costumes worn by the men. As the show kicks off, they change into loose, striped pajama bottoms and a plain white shirt, the base outfit for each part they play. This uniform look allows the actors to slip in and out of the background, taking on different guises.

Andro Cowperthwaite as Joshua

Photography © Katherine Rodden

Without any female actors, in a rather Shakespearian move, the men also play the women - but as the disciples. A play within a play, with no women allowed. This works surprisingly well - Ben Peterson plays Philip playing Joshua's favourite high school teacher. Stephen Gibbons is Peter playing Joshua's mother, Samuel James Morgan plays Thomas playing Joshua's prom date. There's little to make them feminine - a scarf or collar perhaps - they remain very obviously men playing women and this in itself often creates some humour. But they are believable regardless of the sex they take on. We don't just laugh at them for being panto dames, they also eliciting an emotional connection and further emphasising the mutability of gender and sexuality.

The cast also impress when providing the sound effects accompanying the action - from a noisy couple in a motel room, to a television set or crying baby - there is some pre-recorded sound design and music, but a lot of the music and effects are live, which is a nice touch. This helps justify the presence of the large cast, who often occupy the stage at the same time and also simply gives the production an edge.

When all is stripped away, despite the vast liberties taken by McNally, the original themes are all there. The son of God has a difficult but amazing life which culminates in a bloody crucifixion after a terrible betrayal. Everything that surrounds that basic premise has been changed, but artistic licence is used all the time in theatre, this is nothing new.

I'm still unconvinced that there was any creative merit in making so many of the characters gay - it doesn't seem to add a huge amount other than to try to be controversial. Sure, there's a metaphor to be made about being an outcast and a pariah, yet it's not fully-formed enough and looks a little blunt. Still, as it neither shocks nor offends me, ultimately, it has little impact on my feelings towards the entire production. I only bring it up because there are some people who may prefer not to see the play because they feel it's too disrespectful, and it's fair to issue a warning. However, it would be their loss, as a piece of drama, this is close to two hours of gripping, challenging stuff. You won't learn anything about the bible, but you may learn a thing or two about tolerance.

Corpus Christi opened on 26th November and runs until 14th December 2013 at The Space.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)



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