Theatre in Wales

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Iesu

Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , October-13-08
Iesu by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru That Christianity is a two thousand year conspiracy is not a theme new to theatre. In 2001 a leaden play called “God Only Knows” somehow attracted Derek Jacobi who made it bankable enough to play, briefly, in London’s West End. No-one could say the same of Aled Jones Williams’ “Iesu.” Under Cefin Roberts’ direction it is a vibrant, energising piece of theatre with a startlingly large cast of twenty-one and notable sound design from Jochen Eisentraut.

“For me, God is a metaphor,” Aled Jones Williams has said, “a word in our language that represents a search from meaning.” In this context Jesus, as played by the luminous Flur Medi Owen, is a charismatic woman in leggings, short skirt and black jacket. Theologically there is nothing new in this, claims the playwright. The great medieval mystic Julian of Norwich wrote about God as a woman and feminist theology is flourishing. The image of Christ anyhow has always been effeminate with the long hair; his characterisation just extends that imagery “a step further.”

Jesus’ opponents are Llion Williams’ oily Caiaphas and Dafydd Dafis’ saturnine Pilate, dark-suited, black-shirted, with a penchant for opera. He is also something of a thinker, while protected by a six-strong military squad, foul-mouthed, aggressive and dressed in desert fatigues.

Lest there be any doubt quotations from George W and Rumsfeld appear on a large screen. Before being clad in Guantanamo orange Jesus is raped to the sound of Puccini while soldiers photograph her on their mobiles. (To my mind this is a piece of excess. Deploying innocent high opera to accompany atrocity dates back at least to an uneasy sequence in “the Killing Fields.” The troops here resemble more the Blackwater mercenaries than the images of Abu Ghraib reservists; either way, as a technique the aesthetising of violence as a technique has near run its course. )

At the end it is Pilate who orders the transformation into story, and myth, of Jesus as male. He himself transforms into the pope, the playwright’s presumable point being that power is continuous. Not so, I think. The privileged in general have a talent for survival but power is discontinuous. Rome did not mutate effortlessly into the Papacy; both the split with Byzantium and the city’s sacking by the Goths were precursors.

But that is not the main point, for either playwright or company. “Iesu” communicates on several levels. First, that Aled Jones Williams has been parish priest in Porthmadog for thirteen years shows that Anglicanism is more diverse, interesting and exploratory than the dogged reporting from a Lambeth Conference would ever
indicate.

Secondly Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru reports excellent houses for its tour of “Iesu.” (A result of that was that programmes had run out for its final night at Aberystwyth. A soprano saxophonist playing wonderfully in the half-light I cannot give credit to [possibly Dafydd Dafis, ed.]). The main impact of “Iesu” is of a mighty shout from Carmarthen. Yes, the company can mount weighty classics from the likes of Saunders Lewis and Arthur Miller. But it can also tour a big-scale production that is not safely within the canon.

However, I rather suspect that a female Jesus is a fantasy that is an affront to the few but of little disturbance to the many. Guantanamo is uncontroversially a universal source of shame and anger this side of the Atlantic; so next year perhaps a thorny piece on a genuinely disputatious part of our twenty-first century distemper.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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