IMAGINING HOW HE WAS….
Simon Callow’s solo shows have become a landmark: his impassioned Dickens, his Marigold and Chips characters and his Christmas Carol. In Edinburgh I have seen him as Shakespeare and as a troubled transsexual (Tuesdays at Tescos), at the Royal Opera House he was Wagner. This summer – while performing his hour-long turn as the Roman satirist Juvenal – he learned this show.
Some critics cavil at this Victorian energy, the Wolfit-Sinden energetic oration, the striding command. Me, I rather like it. As in his prolific and fine writing (notably Love is Where It Falls and the Laughton and Welles biographies), Callow has a quality of fearlessness: not arrogance but something which which feels born more of reckless, generous ambition. It sits unusually in an age which praises dry obliquity, a Cumberbatchy screen-friendly minimalism. But it is an honourable idiosyncrasy.
Here he storms in again with a show about Jesus, scripted by Matthew Hurt and directed by Joseph Alford on a stage bare of all but random piled chairs. used to represent interlocutors or to hurl around as moneychangers’ tables. Not that Callow is being Jesus. Rather he plays, without changing anything but accent, twelve recurring characters who encounter him in the occupied, brutally ruled 1st century Galilee and Judaea. Making a fierce initial demand of our suspension of disbelief, he begins – in tweed jacket with leather elbows and grizzled middleaged maleness – as a teenage Yorkshire Mary, stared at for her single pregnancy and shuddering at the rows of rebels crucified alive by the roadside. Then he is Jesus’ half-brother, James, Simon the fisherman, Barabbas the freedom fighter, a ranting Baptist (unquenchable even when beheaded) and others including Judas (gratingly Scottish) Lazarus and – curiously effectively – Joanna, the woman afflicted by years of bleeding who touches his robe and is cured.
She is played Sloaney, affluent, county-posh and wholly credible. Indeed it is the RP arrogance of Herod and the nervy camp of Pilate which work better than Yorkshire Mary or even the borderline-scouse Peter, though the latter’s panic after the arrest is good. Indeed the second half (the whole is a neat 110 mins including interval) is more political, and therefore more interesting, than the first.
Does it work? Not entirely. A problem with Hurt’s text is that in its obvious need to quote the more startling and interesting words of Jesus, it too often fails to filter them properly through the characters of his multiple narrators. Can’t blame Callow for this: the direction could give him more help in creating a sharp transition from, for example, Judas to Peter. Both being overwrought men – one cynical, one enthusiastic and weak – it would be clearer if their moments were separated by one of the other characters, like Pilate, Herod or the women. Though even Mary is not rapidly enough established by text in her later appearances, since Callow wisely attempts no gendered mannerisms.
Still, the last moments are striking: Pilate’s view of his prisoner is the one which most strikes home. Hurt dodges the idea of literal resurrection: many an Anglican Bishop would approve of that. And Callow’s performance won three enthusiastic curtain calls.
Touring to 4 Nov. themanjesus.co.uk – http://tinyurl.com/ob24x89