By Darby Turnbull
Whenever certain members of the Christian Church shrilly opine that they are being ‘silenced’ or ‘oppressed’ I would like to refer them to response Jo Clifford received when she premiered Gospel according to Jesus, Queen of Heaven in 2009. She was subjected to abuse in the streets, protests outside the theatre, death threats, attacks in the press, religious leaders called it ‘an affront to the Christian faith’. Of course, it is doubtful any of them actually saw the play, their hysteria centred around the mere existence of a transgender woman exploring the teachings of Jesus from the perspective of a trans woman. But that would imply that there’s logic to their vitriol.
The atmosphere in which this latest production is being performed couldn’t more prescient, as it always will be as long as trans people’s liberties are being institutionally attacked. Between Mark Latham’s Education Legislation amendment (Parental rights) bill in NSW which would “outlaw gender fluidity teaching, course development and teacher training” which would attempt to erase the existence of trans people from public schools*, the Australian Christian Lobby’s latest vile smear campaign after a trans student was allowed to continue studying at Xavier College and our Prime Minister’s ongoing centring of Christianity in his political agenda.
Clifford’s writing is a rather straightforward queering of theology from a trans matriarchal perspective. Jesus is delivering a sermon with key parables from the bible being adapted for queer readings. More of less with the same meanings behind them; beware the self-righteous, practicing empathy and love to our neighbours and communities, rejecting greed and tyranny. It is a work that honours, celebrates and worships trans and queer bodies and identities in a form that has historically been used to preach hatred and fear of them. Its triumph is that it provides as space to meditate on the beauty of trans bodies and identities and celebrate them for their beauty and courage. However, Jo Clifford’s whiteness is inextricable from the text (so is mine) and my theatre companion suggested it would have benefited from the input of trans people of colour to deepen and enrichen her ideas. For example, the ways in which Christian doctrine has been used in racial persecution and upholding white supremacy. Namely how ‘dark’ and ‘black’ has been used as synonymous with ‘bad’ and ‘light’ or ‘white’ used to represent good*. Also, the sex positivity of the text is somewhat undermined for not including asexuality, particularly the line ‘blessed be the frigid and impotent for they will be fucked as much as they desire’. The validity of those who do not desire sex and elect not to include it in their life should be honoured as much as those who do.
Kristen Smyth, primarily a writer, makes an exceptional stage debut as Jesus. She is a natural orator with a rich, sonorous voice and a beautifully warm stage presence that incorporates the self confidence of the divine and the swagger of a Rockstar. She embodies someone who is in love with life and humankind but weary and angry at its repeated inability to learn from their mistakes. She embodies precisely what I imagine Jesus represents when they’re looking for comfort and relatability.
She is supported by a strong choir featuring Willow Sizer, Mel O’Brian, Tomas Parish and Sherry-Lee Watson who provide some glorious harmonies and offer some lovely, nuanced physical responses to Smyth’s oration.
Director Kitan Petkovski’s production is light, relaxed and cerebral and strongly weaves all aspects of the creative development into a singular place of worship and reflection. Rachel Lewindon’s compositions and lilting and mediative. Bethany J Fellows’ set is minimalist but evokes the religious setting with simple white pews for the choir, a water jug and clay and a striking patch of glass. Her costume for Smyth is stunning; a glittery party dress with royal blue vestments. Katie Sfetkidis lighting design with associate Rachel Lee has an airy purity; all these elements make for one of the most relaxing productions I’ve seen this year. Invaluable support is provided by Lighting and Sound operator Nathan Santamaria who excels at keeping the audience in the moment and directors intern Ibrahim HALAÇOĞLU.
The one thing in my mind that would have heightened the performance would be the ability to have physical interaction to create an interpersonal connection with the audience. It’s a testament to the strength and belief in this production that they mostly achieve that in theatreworks’ current set up which include glass booths that separate the artists and audiences.
Gospel according to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is a valuable and beautiful addition to Naarm’s cultural landscape and Midsumma festival. Recommended for audiences looking for find solace or a balm from gender and sex based discrimination (though some might find less than others), allies and friends wishing to be part of something special, those interested in deep readings of theology or those who just want to commune to hear stories. This is a piece of theatre that is accessible, moving and deeply relatable. Many thanks to Ben Anderson and theatreworks for bringing it to the stage.
Images: Cameron Grant, Parenthesy