The life of Saul of Tarsus, the rabbinical guardian of the temple who met the Messiah on the road to Damascus and became the apostle Paul, is some two millennia old.
The danger in messing with the New Testament is that, as with the same playwright's Romans in Britain 25 years ago, there is a risk of accusations of blasphemy and the inevitable ensuing calls for a ban.
This production has not had a good start as the original actor chosen to play the title role, Paul Rhys, withdrew a few days before it was due to open. Adam Godley has bravely stepped in from Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years and suffers from an inadequate period of rehearsal and mental preparation for what cannot be an easy part.
The first half is not too far from the gospel truth, as it were. Saul/Paul leads an army of fundamentalist thugs in modern dress through a destroyed war zone designed by Vicki Mortimer. This country, torn apart by fanatics, provides echoes of Beirut, Baghdad or even the Holy Land today as the group rushes around trying to put down the followers of a new prophet, Yeshua. In their eyes, he is a madman amongst many overrunning the rural slum that is Nazareth who has risen above the mass.
Paul might be epileptic and, while fitting and foaming, receives a visit from the apparently resurrected Yeshua himself. Pearce Quigley plays the bearded, stigmatised Messiah as a flat unimposing man whom one would not easily find inspiring. Paul though is entranced and converted in an instant. He immediately sets off on his mission like a man possessed (or on Prozac).
His most important meeting is with the family and followers of the man whom he begins to call Jesus Christ. In Jerusalem, he meets not only Jesus' brother (Paul Higgins as James) and oldest disciple Peter the Fisherman (Lloyd Owen). There too is his wife!
Mary Magdalene, played by Kellie Bright, is a brash whore who finds it even more difficult to revere her husband than do his other followers. To them, he is a sure-fire meal ticket and little more, to her a dead man hardly different from any other.
The theological debate between Paul, the devout believer and James the power hungry brother who knows a different truth can be fascinating. So are the discussions about what makes Christianity hang together. Is it necessary to be a Jew first before one can become a Christian and where do foreskins fit in?
The play moves into overdrive as Brenton offers his explanation of the miracles with which Jesus acquired his reputation, still so strong 2,000 years on. This is controversial stuff and could well lead to vehement protests from those who will probably never see the play.
There is a body of people which believes that stage or film invention can be damaging if it questions religious traditions and in such cases must be stopped. Not too long ago, the law would have agreed but now playwrights like Brenton are free to write what they wish, for good or ill.
Although it challenges common understanding as derived from the New Testament, surprisingly Paul doesn't ever really excite. Whether the apostle is a gullible mug who helped to spread the word and allow his religion to take off or a disciple of the Son of God, in this representation neither he nor those that he meets are entirely believable, nor do they grab the imagination as they surely should have done.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher