Review: The Gospel of St. John
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
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The Event: Stageworks/Hudson presents the walking the dog theater production of The Gospel of John by John the Evangelist with David Anderson, Laurie Portocarrero, Glen Williamson. 2007 Direction by Adrian Locher, DIrector North America: Benedicta Bertau. Presented in association with Anthropos. April 19-22, 2012. About 110 minutes, performed without intermission.
Larry Murray: Do you think our pilgrimage to Hudson for the Gospel of St. John gets us any heavenly points we can use later on?
Gail Burns: Seeing a theatrical adaptation of John’s Gospel excited me because, unlike the synoptic gospels, it is not told as a linear story, and because the language is so beautiful. Rather than just giving a chronology of Jesus’ words and deeds, it tries to paint a portrait of his spiritual energy.
Larry: I think the play is a revelation, pardon the pun, and the sort of passionless passion play mainstream churches would look kindly on. Except for the kiss between Lazarus and Jesus, it was a chaste, pure and simple staging of John’s Gospel. But it had none of the oomph you might get if was performed by a bunch of hallelujah shouting, hand-clapping fundamentalist believers.
So just how did you find the Lord in Hudson?
Gail: Preachy…and I don’t mean that in a good way. The speech was declamatory, like a pulpit sermon only six times longer. Since I am familiar with one of the three actors – David Anderson who played Jesus – and know that he is capable of much more, I have to assume that the director is responsible for the “flat aspect.” And as far as I know neither the original director Adrian Locher, nor Benedicta Bertau, the director for this Walking the dog production in 2007/2008, were in the United States to oversee this mounting of the show.
Larry: The play had a lot to work with in that Gospel: there’s the turning of water to wine, the incident that prompted the “he who is without sin cast the first stone” concept, the money-changers at the temple and the raising of Lazarus. But I think the stories were presented turgidly, and I can’t blame the playwright.
Gail: Those are great stories! I would guess that most adult American audiences know this story and the words used to tell it pretty well – I was raised an atheist but by the time I was ten I realized that I needed to read the bible to understand and enjoy much of Western literature, art, and music. Whether or not you identify as a Christian, you know this story, so when you retell it, particularly on the stage, you need to bring something new to it. This production failed to do that for me, and you know from our long drive down and back how much I wanted to like this play.
I have listened to Alec McCowen’s brilliant one-man performance of Mark’s Gospel and produced a performance of that same text by a clergy friend recently. Mark is the shortest Gospel and is thought to be the first of the canonical gospels written down, and it is much less mystical and poetic than John, but those performances were also much more theatrical than what we saw last night. I heard the voices of the different speakers more clearly, and the stories felt more exciting and more theatrical.
Larry: In your “day job” as the assistant to the Pastor at a large Congregational church you know many of the clergy in northern Berkshire County. What do you think they would have taken away from this staged Gospel of John?
Gail: It’s a stretch to try to speak for them, but I would hope they would agree with me in envisioning Jesus as a more dynamic and passionate man. When I read the Gospel I see him angry with the money changers in the temple, cross with his mother for “outing” him at the wedding at Cana, repeatedly disappointed in and by his disciples – who certainly give hope to the rest of us dim-bulbs who have to have the simplest lessons bashed into our skulls – and routinely challenging to the Roman and Jewish authorities. But this was a very safe Jesus, endlessly pious and patient, which makes him dull and unbelievable to me, but which is guaranteed not to offend the greatest number of people. And Anderson looks exactly like the Jesus routinely depicted in Western Sunday School lesson books, which adds to that sense of him as a “safe” person when in truth he was practically an outlaw.
Of course my Rabbinic friends would be deeply saddened by the heavy antisemitic tone of the script. Scholars are sure that John’s Gospel was written about a generation later than the other three, and by that time Christianity was starting to distinguish itself from Judaism, rather than continuing to identify as a Jewish sect. The antisemitism is there in the Gospel, but I heard it much more clearly here than I ever had before.
Larry: The original director, Adrian Locher, trained at the London Speech School and seems to have an innate Anglican sense of gospel as theatre. The translator, Kalma Bittleston (1909-1989), also trained in the U.K. though she was born in South Africa. Benedicta Bertau who updated the direction is a movement specialist which could also explain a lot about how the final work we saw got its shape.
This production was presented more as a formal ritual with the actors using stylized gestures and adopting postures traditionally assumed by clergy during public worship frequently throughout the production. And that is not a bad thing, after all the theatre has its beginnings as a very effective way to educated illiterate people about the stories of the Bible.
Gail: This play is clearly intended as a serious piece of liturgical drama for Christian audiences during the Lent and Easter seasons. And yes, theatre springs directly from religious practice and liturgy. The whole physical set up – with audience facing actors on a raised platform – is taken directly from sacred architecture. Churches have “robing rooms,” theatres have “dressing rooms.” Stained glass windows are the original lighting gels.
Larry: On the program it says “3 Actors, 2 Chairs, 1 Table”. Talk about bare bones theatre.
Gail: Imagine, the entire set consisted of that table, two chairs, and a suggestion of a tree. The Congregational church where I work is very plain and unadorned, in the Puritan tradition, and on Communion Sundays there is a plain wooden table with a couple of chairs for the deacons and a simple wooden cross (Jesus’ crucifixion is often referred to as him being “nailed to a tree”) hanging behind. Same setting, only here they whisked that table and chairs around ad nauseaum. The Altar Guild would never stand for that!