I’ve not been a regular churchgoer for years, but I went a lot as a child. Part of me thinks going to so much theatre must be a reaction to sitting through years of Sunday services – “This time round I’m going to sit through something of my choosing, that’s going to goddamn entertain me,” sort of thing.
Jo Clifford is the titular Jesus, Queen of Heaven, gentle, sincere and pastoral – every bit reminiscent of the Catholic priests I grew up listening to preaching. The notable difference, of course, is that she lives openly as a trans*woman. The Church, and a lot of Christians (and non-Christians, mind) have a lot of hang-ups about a lot of things, and gender’s no exception. It’s not so long since women vicars became a thing, then there’s equal marriage, and you still don’t get female Catholic priests.
Jo Clifford’s approach to gender and Christianity, unsurprisingly, is to shake the two up, throw a few queers in there. Textually, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is a series of rewrites, of parables, of biblical stories, with queer characters, themes and assertions transposed into them. Clifford delivers these in a half-sermon, half-storyteller manner. After an introductory section, cushions and pillows are brought out and Clifford invites us to sit on the ground at her feet, which gives off a boy Jesus at the temple vibe.
Here, the performance for the most part plateaus; the sensation is reminiscent of church: interesting in terms of subject matter, but delivered the same way it was last week. I can’t help but feel this piece needs some severe dramaturgical tweaking, and the introduction of stronger dynamic shifts. As it is, once the performance is up to speed, it stays on the same level. Clifford’s parables are too many, and too short to do the work I feel they could if they interrogated the scripture a little deeper. The effect is ultimately very piecemeal, a magpie approach to queering the Bible.
There are some brief, potent moments of real fire and fierce pride, where Clifford’s rage at the injustices suffered by her and trans*women the world over come to the surface. And I wish there were more of that, and that was channelled more into the content and the confrontational nature of where, physically and ideologically, this show is being performed. From reading Clifford’s programme notes, I know her rage is there, I know her politics are consistent but it feels like in the performance those politics are hidden from view.
The ideas behind this show have powerful potential, as does its situation inside church spaces and scripture. And I think it’s happening in the right place, and the strongest audience it could happen in front of would be a gaggle of conservative churchgoers. But somewhere along the line this production has been sapped of its power. I would love to see this show intensified and performed to congregations because I think there’s real work a piece of theatre like this (and very like this) could do in that space. I admire its ambition, and I think conceptually it’s capable, if not quite all there in practice.