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Edinburgh Festival 99 Monday, 16 August, 1999, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Stephen Billington: A prize villain
Stephen Billington: Causing trouble again
After winning Villain of the Year for his performance as Greg Kelly in Coronation Street, Stephen Billington is again provoking passion, this time in the role of a gay Judas. He talks to BBC News Online's Edinburgh Festival correspondent Matt Grant.

Every festival needs a controversy and Edinburgh has once again come up trumps. The wrath of right-wing councillors and religious leaders is this year focused on Terrence McNally's controversial account of the life of Jesus Christ, Corpus Christi.

Edinburgh Festival 1999
The play depicts Christ and his followers as a band of homosexuals. When it premiered in New York, the director and cast received bomb and death threats. Conservative sentiments are still more enraged now it has made its European debut in Edinburgh because it is being performed in a former church.

The biggest draw - and the clincher in the publicity stakes - is the appearance of former Coronation Street villain Stephen Billington in the cast list.

Stephen Billington in character as Judas Iscariot
Having caused opprobrium among a nation's housewives by playing Street kidnapper Greg Kelly, he is now taking on the challenge of portraying a gay Judas Iscariot. In the role, he seduces Jesus and gives the son of God his first sexual experience.

So, does he like provoking controversy? "Absolutely," he says, grinning.

'Message about tolerance'

He denies this is simply an end in itself. He defends the play earnestly and urges people not to judge without having seen it.

"It is an important play, very pertinent now especially with the attacks on minorities in London in recent months - the nail bomb attacks and everything. It is a very important play with a message about tolerance."

Billington says he enjoys provoking controversy
Billington insists he had not expected a strong reaction, despite agreeing to a role clearly designed to inflame some sensibilities. The extent of the row only became clear to him when he saw the inevitable demonstration awaiting the play and its performance on the first night.

"We had 70 protesters on opening night," he says. "They were mild-mannered, but they hadn't seen the play.

"The weirdest thing was the pastor, Jack Glass, who was leading them, was actually wearing a crown of thorns on his head, which I thought was more blasphemous than anything shown on stage."

'Something in my inner psyche'

After succumbing to his first temptation with Billington, the play shows Christ blessing a gay marriage before being executed for promoting immoral values. The setting is Corpus Christi, Texas, USA.

Billington says he has no problem playing a gay character, pointing out he took on the role of the prince's boyfriend in Mel Gibson's Braveheart before he joined the Street.

Villain of the Year: Billington collects the prize he won for playing Greg Kelly
In the soap opera he earned notoriety by kidnapping Sally Webster and her children, a performance that won him Villain of the Year at the National Soap Opera awards.

"We all have the propensity to do things that are not socially acceptable, all the way from murder right down to swearing," he says.

"As an actor, you get the chance to play those roles as a release - you don't actually do the things but you get it as a release.

"I enjoy playing villains for that reason, it obviously taps into something in my inner psyche. I couldn't make Greg any more pure evil than I could make Judas."

Billington says he is not worried about becoming typecast in the villain role because he has taken on many romantic leads in the past and thinks directors recognise his versatility.

He has no idea what will come next for him once Corpus Christi has finished its run, but says he wants to carry on working in both television and theatre.

"They're both very different - I love them both. With TV, it's captured on film good or bad and it's there forever. With stage work it's of the moment and then it's gone and it's much more exciting."

See also:

13 Aug 99 | Edinburgh Festival 99
13 Aug 99 | Edinburgh Festival 99
13 Aug 99 | Edinburgh Festival 99
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