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A CurtainUp London London Review

If Jesus Christ did not die, we cannot be saved.
---- Paul
Adam Godley as Paul
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
When I was at university I shared rooms with a Catholic girl who tried to explain the immaculate conception and virgin birth with some kind of pseudo-scientific latent twin theory. I wasn't impressed then and I'm not impressed now. I have always felt that the central idea of any religion was not that it could be proved scientifically or historically, but that you believed it: that belief is more crucial than proof. So the shock horror revelation of Howard Brenton's new play about St Paul impresses me not. I understand that it has already offended some Christians but the play seems to have found an audience from among members of that religion.

Brenton's last controversial play for the National twenty five years ago attracted even more publicity when Mrs Mary Whitehouse took up cudgels to battle against the scene of male rape in Romans in Britain. Paul was generating letters of protest from Christian groups before it had even previewed.

The play, which figures around the life of St Paul, opens with Saul leading an expedition to root out followers of Yeshua (Jesus). The set looks like a Middle East battle area with low walls of white brick houses and there was the first problem for me. As Paul spends much time sitting on the ground or in his conversion, convulsing in an epileptic fit, the sight lines are so poor in the rearranged Cottesloe that I could not see who was speaking or what was happening. The play is a month late opening due to the indisposition of Paul Rhys who was to have taken the lead role. Adam Godley has stepped into the breach.

The biographical detail is interesting, although it doesn't present anything we didn't know already. Paul, previously known as Saul of Tarsus, is described as "a rich man's son dabbling in religon". His conversion, on the road to Damascus, takes the form of an epileptic fit. The encounter with Mary Magdalene (Kellie Bright) strikes a cheap note as she confirms that she was Jesus' wife and that he married her to shock his middle class, stuck up parents. "I'm sick of people kneeling in front of me asking to wash my feet", she says.

It is obvious that Brenton as an atheist is drawn to the teachings of St Paul but has difficulty in accepting the wider values of Christianity without also accepting the Jesus stories as true. The speech which is St Paul's Letter to the Corinthians is powerfully done and we get some idea of the intellect behind Paul's great epistles as he seems to develop ideas, and pragmatic solutions, like "it is better to marry than to burn" in discussion with Barnabus (Colin Tierney), James (Paul Higgins) and Peter (Lloyd Owen).

The shock revelation of the second half is hardly new. The long list of Christian conspiracy theories which are now popular with the best selling novel series The Da Vinci Code. Hugh Whitemore's 2001 play God Only Knows covered much the same territory, just that the author of the conspiracy was the Roman Governor and not Joseph of Arimathea.

Adam Godley's lanky Paul is touching at times and Lloyd Owen and Colin Tierney as Peter and Barnabus lend good support but there is too little to convince in this play about religious conversion and conviction.

Written by Howard Brenton
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Adam Godley, Lloyd Owen
With: Colin Tierney, Howard Saddler, Pearce Quigley, Dermot Kerrigan, Kellie Bright, Paul Higgins, Richard Dillane, Tas Emiabata, Dermot Kerrigan, Eugene Washington
Design: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Paule Constable
Sound: John Leonard
Music: Dominic Muldowney
Running time: Two hours twenty five minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7420 3000
Booking to 4th February 2006 in repertory with Two Thousand Years and Translations
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 10th November 2005 performance at the Cottesloe, Roayla National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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©Copyright 2005, Elyse Sommer.
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