Son of Man
Northern Stage, Newcastle
Northern Stage's first production in its magnificently refurbished theatre and under its new chief executive and artistic director Erica Whyman had to be an attention-grabber and Dennis Potter's 1969 Wednesday Play Son of Man certainly fits the bill. It certainly has excited a lot of interest regionally, as the crowd of the great and the good of North East theatre at the opening night (it has been previewing since 8th September) showed.
Although the play, with its short scenes and changes of place, still bears the signs of its television origins, Whyman, along with designer Soutra Gilmour, has emphasised the production's theatricality in numerous ways: actors change costume and character onstage, scene changes are done in full stage light, most of the theatrical technicalities are clearly visible, right down to the fly-lines which actors use to raise the cross on which Jesus is crucified. It's an almost Brechtian alienation, constantly reminding us that we are watching a piece of theatre.
Differentiation between the various groups of characters is done partly by costume - the Roman soldiers wear leather armour and crested helmets; Pontius Pilate wears open-necked shirt and slacks but his formal attire is reminiscent of the kind of tropical dress work by district commissioners in the days of the British Empire; the ordinary Jews wear an amalgam of the modern and traditional Palestinian and the priests wear Middle Eastern priestly robes; the Roman women and the female servants wear timeless simple dresses, except for Procla, Pilate's wife, whose dress is more elaborate - and partly by accent, with the Romans speaking standard English and the Jews having a north east accent (not all Geordie: Paul McLeary's Caiaphas is definitely County Durham!). Jesus is the only one of the Jews to stand out both in costume and accent: he wears a simple outfit of trousers and shirt and his accent is RP.
The effect is to bring a momentous story down to a human level, which, of course, is Potter's aim, for the play deals with the humanity of Jesus. "Can it be me?" he asks himself on the last day of his time in the wilderness: is he really the Messiah? And although the disciples and others accept him as such, there is always doubt in his mind - and thus doubt in the audience's minds too.
But even if Potter's Jesus is fully human - and he argues that he must be, otherwise God would be cheating, and he can't do that - he must still have a charismatic, magnetic personality, and Scott Handy has this in full measure. His rendering of the Sermon on the Mount, done in full house light and aimed directly at the audience, was totally compelling, so that even the schoolkids in the front row were transfixed. And he was equally powerful when racked by doubts.
Adrian Schiller's Pilate was equally as powerful in a different way. A consummate politician, he has enormous distaste for the simple military solutions (and limited understanding) of his commander and centurions and plays Caiaphas like a musical instrument to achieve his aims of preserving the status quo. At the same time, Schiller does not try to make him in any way sympathetic and, in the scene immediately after the interval, shows his innate cruelty.
Paul McCleary's Caiaphas is not the double-dyed villain that centuries of Christian propaganda have painted him. He too is a politician who is a match for Pilate in their negotiations over the behaviour of Roman troops within Jerusalem and believes passionately that what is best for the priesthood is what is best for the faith and therefore for the nation. He, too, has his moments of doubt when he agonises over whether Jesus is indeed the Christ. Failing to get a straight answer from Jesus, he decides that the best thing for the nation would be for Jesus to die.
The portrait of Judas Iscariot (Mark Calvert), too, is interesting: he is a member of the Temple police - an undercover operative - who becomes convinced that Jesus is the Messiah and is only persuaded to betray him in order to force him to announce his Messiahhood. Like many other aspects of the Bible story, the thirty pieces of silver are simply not mentioned.
The parallels with Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and, indeed, the Middle East in general, are obvious, and Whyman, wisely, leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
The problem is that the play is a little too long. The first half was gripping but the dramatic tension sagged on occasion in the second, which is odd for that is where the most dramatic action takes place. Some of the scenes would benefit from cuts - the boxing scene at the beginning of the second act and the scene in which the slave Ruth massages Pilate serve a similar purpose: the first is too wordy and the second is really redundant, interrupting the build-up of tension to make a point about Pilate that has really already been made.
Still, that aside, it is a powerful piece and Erica Whyman has put her stamp on the theatre.
Runs until 23rd September
Reviewer: Peter Lathan