01 January 2006

"Twisted Rubbish!"

The x number of million people who (like me) watch the telly drama Spooks are well acquainted with Howard Brenton's subjects, even if they never read his name on the credits. His most recent episode was one which posited the existence of a 'black ops' unit within MI5 that planned the murder of Princess Diana. Sensational, yes, but HB drew his scenario so carefully well, it was grippingly plausible, and set off dramatic explorations of loyalty, double identity, culture wars, and the limits of state power. These were also themes in HB's extraordinarily prescient Spooks episode that dealt with the nightmare of "homegrown" Islamist suicide bombers in the UK. The extremities of faith, the hunger for a higher truth, the bitter taste of exile and cultural alienation - these are classic HB themes and they are again dissected in Paul, at the National Theatre.

Played out on a thrillingly evocative set, all shell-blasted sun-bleached stone walls, the play tells the story of Saul, leader of a Roman death-squad on its way to wreak havoc among the Christian sects of Syria, who after an encounter with the resurrected Christ changes his name, his life, and the course of human history. The "Road To Damascus" conversion is dramatised early in the play, though not altogether as well as it might have been, I'd say if asked. The depiction of Christ, or Yeshuah to his followers, lacked a certain something - it felt wrong that he was characterised as a gentle, bearded, philosophical type. I wished we'd been given a revolutionary, a charismatic firebrand. Anyhoo. The play delves into those fascinating questions beloved of HB - the rightness of some lies but not of others, the elusive nature of belief, the tricks and traps of our self-delusions. We learn, in the superior second half, that Paul was the victim of a deliberate fiction, a pretence. The founding father of Christianity was hoaxed. We meet Yeshuah (Jesus in Latin, the Christ in Greek) - alive, not risen, but not very well - and we meet his family. World-weary Mary, wife of Yeshuah, with not a good word to say about his mother (!), was given the most provocative line of the play, something about Y's mother's being "fucked in the ear" by the Word of God, and it elicited an almost plaintive heckle - "Twisted rubbish!" - from an elderly punter who then made his way out of the Cottesloe. I felt sorry for the man, and winced at how I might have reacted to the play aged 17. It would, at the very least, have blown my mind. But HB's a provocateur, and that's that. You don't go to his stuff for solace.

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