Tomorrow night’s world premiere of Howard Brenton’s controversial new play Paul at the National Theatre has been postponed due to the ill health of actor Paul Rhys (pictured), who takes the title role. Last night’s and tonight’s previews at the NT Cottesloe have already been cancelled and there’s no confirmation yet as to when performances will resume.

The play about the saint who renounced his former life, changed his name and devoted himself to preaching the gospel, has already attracted complaints from some Christian groups, who implored NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner to call off the ‘blasphemous’ production (See The Goss, 14 Sep 2005).

Howard Brenton, of course, is no stranger to controversy. His play The Romans in Britain, premiered at the National in 1980, became infamous for its graphic scene of male-on-male rape, which inspired campaigner Mary Whitehouse to instigate a private prosecution (later dropped) under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956.

Rhys has previously had success at the National in The Invention of Love and the Complicite co-production of Measure for Measure. However, in 2002, he withdrew from the NT production of Ivanov on account of a personal bereavement (See News, 29 Jul 2005) and, earlier this year, he withdrew from the Barbican staging of Julius Caesar, citing a “combination of a virus infection and physical exhaustion following a demanding filming schedule” (See News, 7 Mar 2005).

Paul is directed by Howard Davies and designed by Vicki Mortimer. The cast also features Lloyd Owen as Peter, Paul Higgins as James and Kellie Bright as Mary Magdalene.

The production started previews on 30 September 2005 and is scheduled to run in rep until 4 February 2006. Theatregoers who booked for one of the cancelled performances are advised to contact the National Theatre box office to arrange refunds or exchanges.

- by Terri Paddock