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Corpus Christi

Wed 15 May 2002 In: Performance

Bomb threats, protests from Christian 'civil rights' groups, street violence, hate graffiti, the withdrawal of sponsors, criticism from Islamic leaders and accusations of blasphemy have followed Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi wherever it has been staged – and from time to time these threats have been successful in halting productions of this extraordinary work. Corpus Christi is the latest work to hit these shores by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, winner of three Tony Awards for Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion! and the Maria Callas diva masterwork Master Class. Last year McNally was nominated again, this time for his book version of the musical Ragtime. When the prestigeous Manhatten Theatre Club in New York initially bowed to pressure from violent protest groups and agreed to dump their production the move precipitated a unified response from the artistic and gay communities. South African writer Athol Fugard announced that he was withdrawing his own play scheduled at the Theatre Club. "In yielding to the blackmail and threats," said Fugard, "the theatre management has compromised one of the basic freedoms of democracy, Freedom of Speech, and they have done it by censoring themselves and collaborating in the attempt to silence Mr McNally." Tony Kushner (‘Angels in America') also spoke up: ‘It's shocking that in New York City a major theatre succumbs to press like this. This is a medieval notion that the arts in the U.S. need to follow any specific docrinal or theological line.' Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller and Wendy Wasserstein said that the Manhattan Theatre Company had made ‘a brave and honorable decision, unquestioningly difficult to make' and the production went ahead amidst protest and nightly vigils outside the theatre. The Manhattan Theatre Club described the play as the story of ‘a young gay named Joshua on his spiritual journey' and as McNally's ‘own unique view of 'the greatest story every told'.  The New York Times said of the play: "Joshua (the Jesus character) is born in a flea-bag Texas motel, grows up in a sexually-charged environment complete with gay encounters, profanity, even violence and dies on the cross. He is crucified as 'king of the queers.'" The script, in conclusion, states "He belongs to us as well as you." One thing is indisputable: it is compelling, raw drama, without doubt the greatest story ever told. Director Lex Matheson, veteran of over 300 live theatre productions, says: "The theatre is one of the few places in our society where challenging ideas can still be discussed – although what is so often called commercial reality has seen these opportunities become few and far between. McNally's play is brilliant, it's theatrically challenging and asks questions that everyone has a right to ask. We are happy to ask them – and to create a forum where we can all endeavour to answer them." The cast of 13 men play all the characters in the story. The disciples, Jesus/Joshua and Judas Iscariot are all presented as gay men and the story is played out over a 45 year period in and around Corpus Christi, Texas. The parallels with the murder of young, gay man Mathew Shepard in Laramie, Texas are obvious. ‘It's a gay play but it's like a modern version of a medieval morality play as well', Matheson says. ‘It's riotously funny, deeply moving and wonderfully spiritual. There will be people offended that, in this work, Jesus is portrayed as gay but there are people who still see him as blue eyed and blonde-haired as well. Maybe he is what we want him to be.' In the NZ Herald review, Peter Calder calls this production of Corpus Christi "a piece which is tenderly, even naively reverential.'s often funny, never less than interesting and, in exploring the pain the Bible's Christ plainly endured in coming to terms with his humanity, touching, illuminating, even spiritual. For those who believe, as Joshua pronounces, that 'all men are divine', that can be no bad thing." Craig Anthony, while interviewed by TV3's Nightline, adds that what the play actually does is make Jesus tangible, approachable, and real. Although he appreciates that it may not be everyone's reality, he says the play's message is universal - it is passionate, it is violent, but it's about love, unconditional love, that Jesus had, and that God has for all of his children. While Joshua and all 12 of his disciples are portrayed as gay, director Lex Matheson says a friend who came in to watch a rehearsal puzzled over the sexuality of the 13 actors. "He asked which ones were gay and which ones were straight. You would not be able to tell the difference and for us it's not an issue. They are simply actors and they want to do the play." The cast includes Craig Anthony as Jesus/Joshua, Richard Thompson as Judas, Blair Cooper as John the Baptist, Vaughan Aaronjohn, Patrick Graham, Paul Letham, Robert Charlton, Sterling Lynch, Pascal Tibbits, Thomas Sainsbury, Simon Cook, Jonathan O'Brien and Brett Simpson. Set design is by Blair Cooper and lighting design by Andrew Malmo. Reader feedback: As someone who was brought up as a christian, then drifted away from those beliefs and found them even harder to reconcile with my life once I came out as a gay woman early last year, I find the play to be beautiful and touching. It has moments of utter hilarity and delightful campness, beside moments of great joy, deep desire, and some of horrible sadness and despair. It attempts to bring together two things which are often seen as complete opposites - homosexuality and christianity. And it gives hope that the two can indeed be compatible - if loving others is the most important thing, which is what the play says is what Jesus was all about. Some of you will want to see it to see what all the fuss is about, and what it is that has the Christians in an uproar this time. Others will want to see Jesus portrayed as a gay man, and witness the beautiful scenes between Joshua and Judas as lov! ers. This is a play which will leave almost no-one untouched - and as someone who will see it every night of its season (due to backstage involvement), I assure you that it will enthrall me anew every night, and that it is well worth seeing. - Denariel. - 15th May 2002    


First published: Wednesday, 15th May 2002 - 12:00pm

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