REVIEW: The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen Of Heaven – Black Box, Belfast
Turning the corner into Hill Street and making our way to The Black Box we see the red and white banners of the protesters and sigh a little, surprised they’re protesting on a Sunday.
Traditionally, those groups that tend to protest usually are against doing work on a Sunday, and standing in the rain proclaiming loudly and negatively certainly feels like work. We don’t want to look directly at them in case their general prayers for all of us begin to be aimed at any of us us in particular, but there seems to be around 5 of them. The red banner has ‘Tradition, family, property’ inscribed on it in gold, the word ‘property’ baffling us slightly as we discuss it afterwards, unsure of its connection to the others. The unfurled white banner has a long message, the headline of which is ‘Enough is enough’. We’re still not sure why they had bagpipes but they cause added noise, and it’s the added noise that prompts the decision to move the show from the Black Box Green Room to the much larger and atmospheric main room, with its cabaret seating and candles on the tables, ironically providing us all with a much more pleasurable viewing experience.
We can only guess at the exact reason for the protest but our guesses range around the fact that this play is about Jesus. More specifically, Jesus is portrayed as a woman. Even more specifically, Jo Clifford, the writer and sole performer in the show is open about being born and raised as a man and after spending years miserable at this cruel trick of fate, decided to change it. So Jesus is portrayed as transgender. Pronouns are blended from the beginning of the show, at first seemingly absent-mindedly but when the parables begin it all becomes very specific. “The Prodigal Son” is a daughter, who was initially cast out because she decided to live as a woman and returned because she spent all her money on dresses and shoes. “The Good Samaritan” is a drag queen who engages in casual sex but still is the only person who calls the ambulance that the Bishop and policeman neglected to call in this updated tale. The parables retain their original meanings of acceptance, kindness but go farther into what acceptance means in the present day. Pointing out that often, even today, more so today, the church ignores certain groups, maligns certain groups. This all while the eerie bagpipes sound outside.
And Jo Clifford is a excellent conduit for this message. This recording of the show decided not to use a static camera placed in the audience seats, instead following Jo closely with all words being directed to camera, sometimes in a slightly too-wobbly Blair Witch fashion. But because of this we can see her face and it’s a face that shows everything. Disdain, arrogance, humour, benevolence shine out of the dignified bone structure, used to maximum effect by a practiced actor. Jesus walks slowly from one part of the church to another, and maybe Jo just walks slow. Maybe it isn’t contrived but it seems artful, nevertheless. It seems as ceremonial as the bread she offers us from the screen, bread she bakes that appears on our table so we can partake of her body.
Her slow voice, again is an art. The play’s director Susan Worsfold explains afterwards that Jo underwent vocal training, “allowing the voice to be a barometer for what’s happening internally”, accessing the male and the female making her a powerful orator. This is revealed during the thoughtfully choreographed Q & A, Jo giving us a few moments at the start to confer with our table mates about the play meant to us and asking each table to pick a question, revealing the frank answers that by this point we’ve come to expect. And we leave, the final word going to the Outburst Festival director Ruth McCarthy, who thanks us all for being so respectful which begs the question: were they expecting some people to be disrespectful? Then again, that’s the entire message of a play which is on the surface about Christianity but in reality about the experience of being transgender. Those not always treated as valuable standing up and saying “We are as valuable as everyone else.” Or having Jo say it for them. Elizabeth McGeown, GiggingNI.com