Pros: A thoughtful examination of the state of the Holy Land when Jesus was a teenager. Strong performances from the ensemble.
Cons: An underwritten part for the lead role. A play desperately in need of humour.
The theatre space in the room above the Bread and Roses is made to feel exceptionally intimate due to its single row of 30 seats surrounding the stage area. Wherever you sit, you’re in the front row. As you file in to take your place, you find yourself inches from the writhing figure of Ishtar, the play’s disporting prostitute / philosopher
The setting is 6AD at a time when Jesus, or Yeshua, as he’s referred to in the play, is a sulky teenager. We meet him on the eve of the funeral of his father, consoling his mother Mariam and demanding his right to bear Yosef’s body to the grave. This is a right denied to him by the Nazareth community, because of his presumed ‘mongrel’ status; he was born to Mariam just a month after her marriage. “A Jew!” exclaims the judge Benammi, “With those eyes! Look at them. I’ve never seen such a shade of blue except on a Roman.”
Punitive taxes meaning villagers having to sell their land to the Greeks, so faith in God is the only thing that binds the community together. But blind faith proves to be a dogmatic path. The main characters in this drama are Lysander, a scribe who works at the Library of Alexandria. He has come to seek guidance as he attempts to prepare the first authentic translation of the bible into Greek. The charismatic prophet Eli, a seemingly devout teacher, exploits orthodox strictures as a means of leeching food from the poverty-stricken villagers.
We’re presented with a bleak view of this hostile world. It’s a world in which everyone is scratching for a living and the only fun comes from an illicit romp with Ishtar. The villagers await salvation through the arrival of the Christ Angel, while a succession of supposed messiahs are arrested and crucified by the Romans.
This first play by writer and producer Alexander Nye shows evidence of a good deal of research, with what seems an authentic feel for the aspirations and social mores of the time. The cast perform with vigour and passion. Unfortunately, they do spend an accountably long time shuffling the four boxes that make up the set from one location to another, to little apparent effect.
The real problem, though, is that the play is entirely devoid of humour. The closest it comes to levity is when Eli tells Lysander “You are not the Messiah. You are a dirty little gentile bitch.” A perhaps inadvertent nod to Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Otherwise, it’s an evening full of shouting, torment and despair. The only dispassionate analysis comes from the philosophical musings of the prostitute Ishtar, who sees religion as a hollow sham. “This god of the Jews! If he is infinitely good, why should we fear him?” “I’ve never heard anyone talk that way about the Lord before,” says a shocked Mariam. “He doesn’t seem to mind,” Ishtar replies.
Although the nominal protagonist of the play, the character of Yeshua is the most minor character. We see him as an angry, pious teenager who insists he never sins, much to Eli’s amusement: “Do you know how many laws there are? 630. Do you know the 300th? No? Then how do you know you haven’t broken it?” Yeshua is a boy devoid of charisma or charm, rhetoric or subtlety. It’s impossible to see this callow youth as a potential leader. Since the main thrust of the play is supposedly concerned with Yeshua’s transformation into messiah, its failure to convince on this point is its undoing.
At well over two hours, this is a play with many good lines, but it has a tendency to overstate each argument long after the point has been made. Some judicious cutting would help to give the drama a much-needed lift.
Writer/producer: Alexander Nye
Designer: Liz Hainsworth
Booking Until: 13 June 2015
Box Office: 0333 666 3366
Booking Link: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/80919