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Edinburgh Festival 99 Saturday, 21 August, 1999, 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK
Jesus! It's a good play
Corpus Christi: Brings homosexuality to New Testament story
By BBC News Online's Festival correspondent Matt Grant

Corpus Christi
Bedlam (until 28 August)

After all the fuss, it is a pleasant surprise to discover Corpus Christi is actually worth recommending for its own merits.

Edinburgh Festival 1999
Chief among those is humour. By depicting Jesus Christ and his disciples as a band of nightclub-going homosexuals, Terrence McNally deliberately courted controversy.

But in the script itself he offers an accessible yet challenging account of the world's most familiar tale.

Jesus, or Joshua as he is known in the play, is presented as a flawed figure. He heals the sick in part because he cannot stand to listen to their cries of pain.

When he attacks a Roman guard, one of his followers questions his actions. "I thought you told us to turn the other cheek?" the disciple says.

"I must have been in a very good mood that day," the son of God retorts.

Forceful performances

Corpus Christi is also inspired by the murder of a young gay man called Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, USA, which McNally describes as a "grotesque crucifixion" as agonising as Christ's own death.

By introducing a sexual dimension into the New Testament story, McNally succeeds in making Jesus and his disciples more human. He argues our sexuality is a crucial part of our make-up that cannot be ignored.

In the flesh: Stephen Billington stars as Judas
But it also brings a fundamental uncertainty into the play, which is never resolved. In the end, Joshua is put to death by the Romans because he claims to be the son of God and because he has blessed a homosexual marriage. The plot never makes it clear which act is perceived as the greater crime.

Such small loose ends do nothing to detract from the force and vigour of the play and the actors' performances.

Former Coronation Street villain Stephen Billington, who plays a haughty Judas, stands out, but all the performers give the appearance of being fully committed to the project.

Clever stage direction also allows a handful or props and costumes to become simultaneously the world of a high school in Corpus Christi, Texas, and the road to Jerusalem.

While the play is being sold as a plea for tolerance, it is in the main part preaching to the converted. But for those who do seize the chance to get along, it offers two hours of theatre so well produced it appears to pass in minutes.

See also:

16 Aug 99 | Edinburgh Festival 99
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