I am not a religious man, but last Friday I was taken to church. The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is not just an outstanding piece of theatre.
For someone like myself who was raised in an oppressive and extreme patch of the Christian theological quilt, it is a healing spiritual experience.
Playwright Jo Clifford’s Queen Jesus articulates the oft neglected humanism of Christ, grounded in his deep empathy for the downtrodden and outcast.
Free from the straitjacket of organised Christian thought and manipulative superstition, this piece creates a welcoming and accepting space that is deeply affecting for anyone who’s embrace of their own queerness came at the expense of their faith.
Part sermon, part second coming, part proud celebration of queerness, Kristen Smyth’s performance as Queen Jesus is enthralling. The audience hangs on every word as she references familiar tales from the New Testament with a mischievous glint in her eye and a moving note of empathy and love in her voice.
With humour and the deep wisdom of Clifford’s words she weaves a spiritual safety net in which the profound message of love and acceptance sitting at the core of this play permeates the space and everyone in it.
Supporting her performance, Bethany J. Fellows’ set is unobtrusive and laden with symbolism, heightening the chapel-like feel of the space. In one corner dangles the almost obligatory wooden cross, a lit but passive observer to the piece.
The central ritual in this story is not the crucifixion but rather the last supper, bringing into focus the relationship between Christ and his followers which is so often relegated to the background of the iconic act of sacrifice that Christianity has so adeptly wielded for centuries as a weapon of guilt.
The Eucharist is creatively presented in works of sculpture that stretch, melt and crack apart in beautifully tactile acts of ritual sharing, achieving a degree of togetherness altogether lacking in the hypocritical confines of most churches.
The choir (Alexandra Amerides, Mel O’Brien, Andre Sasalu, and Willow Sizer) sit and move around Smyth, giving beautiful voice to Rachel Lewindon’s bewitching debut theatrical score. She has described her composition for this piece as an exercise in enveloping the already powerful script rather than driving the emotional agenda of the piece.
That approach has produced music that surrounds and binds the audience together in an atmosphere that I can only describe as how church is supposed to feel.
I went into the space not sure what to expect, but suspecting a degree of blasphemy that I would find both outrageous and wonderful.
I left feeling confirmed in my estrangement from the tongue-speaking, snake-brandishing, queerphobic cult of my childhood, but at the same time spiritually nourished in a way that perhaps allowed a little more of those wounds to close over. If you can, see this show. It is art that will change you!
The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 20 January 2023
Season continues to 29 January 2023
Information and Bookings: www.fortyfivedownstairs.com
Image: Kristen Smyth in The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven – photo by Daniel Rabin
Review: Daniel Townsend