Thursday, May 28, 2015

'Son of Man' at the Bread and Roses Theatre, 27th May 2015

Or The Secret Diary of Jesus Christ, Aged 14 3/4. Tucked away in the top room of the pleasantly lefty Bread and Roses Pub, Alexander Nye's Son of Man makes an effort at tackling some weighty metaphysical questions. What is the true nature of the Christian God? How does he relate to other deities? What was Jesus up to during his difficult teenage years? What informed the philosophies and teachings of this most influential of religious leaders?

Set in 6AD, we meet a teenage Yeshua (Jesus' original name) dealing with some pretty familiar growing pains. He's falling out with his family, butting heads with authority, struggling to define his own identity and becoming quietly convinced that there's something indefinably special about him. Given the mysterious nature of his parentage, his blue eyes and light hair, most treat him as Mariam's (Claire-Monique Martin) bastard Roman child, making him a pariah unable to participate in Jewish religious ceremonies.

The background to this is the relationship between the twin towns of Nazareth and Sepphoris, separated by just three miles. Nazareth is strongly Jewish, while Sepphoris is a cosmopolitan, Roman-controlled worker's town that tolerates freedom of religion and other, more salubrious, activities. Prime among them is a brothel, staffed by the atheist prostitute Ishtar (Thalia Anagnostopoulou). Itinerant religious teacher Eli (Michael Musa Idris) is a reluctant friend of Ishtar's, spending his downtime in the brothel when he's not preaching his visions of an awe-inspiring 'Christ Angel', through whom God made the universe. 

Eli, Yeshua, Mariam and Ishtar and others soon become entangled, each representing differing religious perspectives. As the characters bounce off one other, the young Yeshua begins to gain perspective on his actions, philosophies and ethical code - eventually setting himself on the path to become the badass zen-terrorist Messiah we're all familiar with. It's basically Batman Begins with less ninja training and more epistemological debate.

It's also a tale doled out with a whiff of self-satisfied blasphemy. So, the virgin Mary ends up unhappily working as a prostitute, devoted proto-Christian Eli ends up in a passionate gay tryst with his student, the prostitute Ishtar spends part of a scene rubbing her "cunt" (a word enunciated here with particular relish) on someone's head and, perhaps most heretically of all, it's heavily implied that Christ's divinity arises from epilepsy rather than God. I've got no beef with any of that, but in concert they feel like a somewhat juvenile attempt to shock.

But it doesn't succeed at shock, instead landing at camp. For example, when a character is traumatised upon learning their penis has leprosy it rather undermines the thoughtful spiritual questioning and instead brings to mind a Bible translated by John Waters. This campness is further sustained by the characters taking any opportunity to descend into histrionics. Damn near everyone goes balls out crazy at some point, replete with loud yelling, threats of violence and megalomaniacal ranting.

Still, at least that means that Son of Man isn't boring. There's nearly always something eye-brow raisingly bonkers happening on stage, and a couple of the characters and performances are genuinely interesting. The two best are Michael Musa Idris' Eli, combining a beardy masculine forthrightness with genuine intellectual curiosity. In terms of sheer physicality he deeply impresses, constantly tearing up bread and banging his thick wooden shaft against the stage. Anagnostopoulou's Ishtar, memorably described as a "philostitute", is also great fun to watch; finding a spiky, lascivious moment in almost every line and injecting much needed upbeat femininity into a tale of angry, serious men.

Entertaining as all that is, trying to work out what Son of Man is actually about turns out to be a bit of a headscratcher. There's an unfocussed quality to the writing - one moment we're exploring the Jewish right to Israel, the next homosexuality and Leviticus, the next colonisation under a foreign power, the idea of feminist prostitution and many, many more. 

Most significantly, we're pummelled with all sorts of competing religious viewpoints; that the God of Israel and the Creator God are separate deities, that the various pantheons of Roman, Greek and Canaanite religions are reflections of characteristics of the one true God, the importance of the 'Christ Angel' in Messianic prophecy and so on. What I took away was that while Christianity might present itself as a straightforward truth, the realitylies in a deeply confusing knot of competing ideas and visions, only some of which found their way into the modern Church.

It's certainly an interesting piece of theatre, though not a truly successful one. Still, I can't fault the ambition in trying to recreate Biblical Nazareth above a pub in Clapham. The best praise I can give is that it successfully held my attention, primarily through curiosity at which weird philosophical direction it would spin off in next. 


Son of Man is at the Bread and Roses Theatre from 26th May to 13th June at 7.30pm. Tickets here.

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