Ahead of Paul’s belated premiere Nicholas Hytner received hundreds of letters of complaint from devout Christians who feared he would go to hell if he didn’t cancel the run of Howard Brenton’s controversial play about the saint who found religion on the road to Damascus. But while they may still be praying for the undeterred NT artistic director, none of them bothered to show up for the play’s opening.
Unlike the big and brash musical Jerry Springer, which has sparked off massive Christian protests this year, Paul is a quiet and thoughtful affair, a deep and deeply felt meditation by Brenton on the nature of faith, religion and history. Which is not to say there’s nothing to offend. Aside from the crucial suggestion that Jesus was just a man rather than a messiah or son of God, and therefore incapable of rising from the dead three days after his crucifixion, there’s his marriage to Mary Magdalene just for starters.
But this is Paul’s story, flitting back and forth over 30 years from the night when his Damascene encounters the ‘risen’ Lord converts him from a Jewish military leader to the most active champion of the gospel through to the night before his execution at the hands of the Romans. It is the latter that, in Brenton’s account, is the pivotal moment for Christianity. Paul is presented by Peter with incontrovertible evidence that his so-called visions were no more than political manipulations. Can Paul accept this and let Christian teachings stand on their own without miracles?
We know Paul’s choice, of course, and Brenton makes no attempt to deny his own beliefs – “My view is that Jesus will never return and there is no God”, he writes in the programme notes – but nor does he hide his admiration for the saint he calls a “moral genius”. Yes, the Christianity forged from Paul’s interpretation and dissemination of the scriptures may be based on a lie, but why damn a religion that preaches charity and love?
All of which gives believers and non-believers plenty to ponder, especially as rendered in Howard Davies’ riveting modern-dress production, played out on Vicki Mortimer’s diagonally cut set of crumbling white-washed brick walls by a committed cast. Most impressive is Adam Godley, parachuted into the title role when original star Paul Rhys withdrew during previews. Godley’s Paul may look an unlikely leader, but his desperate need to believe – and his steely determination to brook no argument – is palpable.
Godley also achieves an effective, uneasy rapport with the rest of Davies’ conflicted flock – Lloyd Owen’s questioning but hopeful Peter, Paul Higgins’ fraternally jealous James, Pearce Quigley’s dazed Yeshua/Jesus, Kellie Bright’s romantically embittered Mary Magdalene and Colin Tierney’s weary Barnabus. Richard Dillane’s smooth Nero also puts forth his case for political expedience and propaganda with persuasive force.
- Terri Paddock