The Gopel of Matthew: FAQ

Are you a Christian?

In both interviews before and discussions after performances of The Gospel of Matthew, the question I am most frequently asked is… what are my beliefs? However, despite being an actor, I do not want the focus of attention to be myself, so it is a question I refuse to answer directly.

I want everyone who sees the show to consider its meaning for themselves, to measure the impact of the performance against their own beliefs and not to be influenced by anything they have heard about mine. I think it would diminish the experience, as it would that of any serious theatrical production, for the audience, while watching it, to be analysing what they have read about the artist’s opinions and not reassessing their own.

I believe it is the job of creative artists to stimulate their audiences to see things differently. This can be achieved either by asking questions, or by imparting the artist’s own unique and challenging vision. My primary objective is to ask questions, and while I recognise the inevitability of my work being informed by my experiences and personality, I try not to allow this to shape what I do at a conscious level. I do not set out to say anything.

I will say that I am not an Evangelical. Religiously, I don’t think I have either the right or obligation to try to make others see things the way I do.

This production did not set out to either criticise or promote any brand of Christianity. My primary method was to treat Matthew’s work as if it were any other work of literature – trying to read it with a fresh and open mind and then bringing out the drama that is discovered through working with the material.

Naturally, with such powerful material to work with and given the special significance with which it is regarded by many, there is a risk on the one hand of falling into the temptation to be controversial for its own sake – and causing offence – or on the other of being too timid – and failing to be anywhere near as powerful and provocative as the original must have been.

My hope is that this presentation of The Gospel of Matthew will continue to raise vital questions for everyone who sees it, whatever the flavour or fervour of their own faith.

Why the Gospel?

Brought up in a Christian country where the readings from the Bible were a part of my everyday morning assembly at school from as early as I can remember, the answer as to why I should want to perform the Gospel could turn into a complete autobiography. However, since I did not think of becoming an actor until I reached University, I shall start there.

Two of the first books I read for my Drama degree (in the early ’80s) have remained hugely influential throughout my career. In both Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre the idea of ‘Holy Theatre’ is proposed – that at its best (devoid of the rich trappings and hollow values of modern commercialised entertainment) theatre can still reflect its ancient origins in religious ritual, can in effect be a secular form of communion – the actors, taking the role of priests, being intermediaries between the audience and a revelation and celebration of the human spirit.

This idea of theatre as an arena for spiritual exploration has informed all of my own work.

In 1990 I took my first solo show to Edinburgh, a triple bill entitled Stunning the Punters (and other stories) which included a wonderful story by Dostoevsky – The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. The central character has a great Truth to tell. While contemplating suicide in a fit of existentialist despair, he falls asleep and dreams that he shoots himself but a strange being opens his grave and whisks him through space to a paradise. However, being only human he corrupts this paradise. Realising his guilt he begs the people to crucify him, but they only laugh, calling him a holy fool. At this his heart breaks and he awakens to find his gun, ready and loaded. “No! Give me life now – Yes! Life! I want to live and speak the truth – that we can be beautiful and innocent and happy on THIS earth.” In a final twist, combining hope and despair, optimism and pessimism at once he declares “Of course, I realise that it will never be… but I shall still speak the Truth, even for a thousand years.” And what is the great Truth? – “Love others AS you love yourself, that is all. Nothing more is needed!” There’s more… but as I’m still performing the piece (13 years on) I don’t want to give away the ending entirely.

I called my ‘company’ (myself) Vital Theatre – the name hinting at the essential, life-affirming nature of my way of theatre, and inspired by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s words (in ‘Roast Fish and Cornbread’) – “From it vital, it ital and from it ital, it vital” (in which the ‘ital’ can roughly be translated as ‘spiritual’).

Between 1991 and 1994 I created another 3 solo shows: Judgement by Barry Collins – which tells the story of seven Russian officers imprisoned for sixty days during WW2 without food or water, to be found in the final chapter of George Steiner’s book The Death of Tragedy, which argues that Tragedy as a dramatic form requires a common belief system, but in the 20th century this no longer exists so the only possibility of tragedy is that of humanity abandoned by God, hence the story; Hell & Other Tales by Steven Berkoff – a triple bill of stories about loneliness, which looks beyond this life; and The Remembrance of Edgar Allan Poe – which used the writer’s own words to pay tribute to his tortured soul, his quest for beauty and the death-defying grip of his love.

In 2000 I returned to Edinburgh with my adaptation of Berkoff’s short story collection – Graft – Tales of an Actor – which tells the real story of Harry, a kind of Everyactor, and his life of broken dreams and disappointments leading to the great retrospective ‘Why? What has all the sacrifice been for?’ The answer, perhaps, lies precisely in what Harry has sacrificed to pursue his career – ‘life and love and the interweaving of souls’.

The following year I revived The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (in a double bill with Hell) and ran it in repertoire with Graft, while also appearing in Beckett’s Catastrophe at the first Aurora Nova season of International Theatre at St Stephens.

That triple combination was what prompted my final decision to proceed with The Gospel of Matthew. The Dream had renewed and heightened my interest in the detail and application of the teachings of Jesus, Graft had confirmed for me the way to approach performing the narrative of a whole life, and the fantastic performance space in St Stephens seemed ideal for what I had in mind.

Why Matthew?

In both my work and my personal life, I have explored a variety of spiritual ways. Like many others who grew up during or soon after the hippy era, in addition to my Christian heritage I made the acquaintance of a number of eastern religions, and as well as applying to my methods as a performer the physical, mental and spiritual disciplines derived from my training in the martial arts, I have also drawn inspiration from various Zen and Taoist texts and the Treatises of Zeami (founder of Noh Theatre).

Since forming my first theatre company (on leaving University in 1984) I have periodically considered a number of books of the Bible as potential material for stage productions, the most likely candidates being Job, Ecclesiastes and Revelation. (I saw the most amazing one-man version of Revelation in 1991, performed by a very camp Californian with a stage full of props and a wildness in his eyes.) However, in the back of my mind there was a nagging question… why was I avoiding ‘the big one’? I also wondered why, given that the Passion of Christ has been a major source of inspiration for musical and visual artists for centuries, the Gospel story has rarely been presented on stage in a serious dramatic form since medieval times.

It must have been about 1986 or 87, when I was sitting on the concourse at Euston Station browsing the Gospel of Matthew, that I heard a drunk shouting – “Eeeyah! Saint Bob! It’s Saint Bob. Eeeh! Good on yer! Live Aid! Saint Bob, everyone! Look it’s Saint Bob!” – and sure enough, poor Mr Geldoff was pulling his cowboy hat lower over his face in a forlorn attempt to disguise his towering frame as he rushed to catch his train. I briefly recalled his Geldoffness’s righteous anger a few years earlier in his expletive-filled t.v. appeal – “For f****’s sake, give us your money, now!” – and then I returned to the anger of Jesus as he reclaimed the Temple. For a moment I felt a connection between my instant feeling of euphoria at the saintly Bob’s fleeting presence and the astonishment of those fishermen when they were summoned, two thousand years ago. From that moment I knew that the Bible story I was to perform would be Matthew’s portrait of a Jesus who is both capable of human anger and paradoxically inspired to anger by humanity.

From that early seed, the starting point for this production was in 1994 when I read a newspaper article about Enoch Powell’s last work. However repugnant his political views, Powell was a brilliant classical scholar and after his retirement from politics he revisited and published The Evolution of the Gospel [Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1994]. In typical fire-brand style, from a close study of the original Greek texts (and conjectured Aramaic original sayings), and without reference to religious doctrine, scholarly tradition or other external elements, Powell presents a wealth of detailed textual evidence to support his argument that the original Matthew is the earliest of the synoptic gospels and the one on which the others are based – a reversal of the conventional (twentieth century) view that Mark was the ‘original’ and Matthew was a corruption of it tailored for the Judaic faction of the early Christian movement.

Powell also explains how he thinks the surviving text of Matthew was forged from various, often contradictory, sources (although he makes surprisingly little reference to the ‘Q’) and for me it is this characteristic of Matthew which makes it the most interesting of the Gospels. Unlike the more polished Mark and Luke, Matthew has rough edges which make it in parts an exciting close-to-the source and probably authentic account of the teachings of Jesus and in other parts a thinly-veiled work of later Pauline Christology. Ironically for our modern world, the conflict is nowhere more striking than in how the Gentiles are treated – being bluntly rejected by Jesus himself in several speeches and yet in numerous parables and allegorical events being identified as the ones who will receive the inheritance God originally intended for the Jews.

From Powell I obtained an understanding of The Gospel of Matthew as an unresolved dialectic. It is precisely because in Matthew the fault-lines have not been ironed out that it is the most dramatic of the canonical Gospels (and not surprisingly it is the one which has been most often used as the source for television or film adaptations – from Pasolini to Godspell).

The next key impulse to stage the Gospel was two events at Christmas 2000. My daughter, who was then four years old, was rehearsing for the nativity play at her nursery school, and one day announced at dinner “I love the baby Lorgeezers!”. Shortly thereafter, we all attended a carol service at a local church, and I found myself moved more to anger than anything else by the unbearable dullness of the ritual, the zombie-like performances of the priests and the congregations sad attempts at song – either swallowed spiritless mouthings or enforced jollity – none of it, to my mind, having anything more to do with the events of 2000 years ago than the rampant commercialism going on outside. If Jesus were here now, I thought, he’d be shouting at these people to stop going through the motions and wake up.

Over the following weeks and months I began to research the early history of Christianity, in particular any material which was relevant to what Jesus himself did, thought and taught (and trying to avoid anything which derived from later church influence). For a while I considered performing the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, but decided against it as I thought probably it would not only deter rather than attract a Christian audience but would also fail to appeal to anyone else.

In the weeks before the Edinburgh Festival in August 2001 there were more triggers, some of them quite ordinary, such as the stall at a community fete which was giving away pocket bibles, some of them more unusual and taking me by surprise, like the time when I noticed the name of the Merry-go-round horse on which I had just put my kids – Matthew – or the bizarre and untraceable spam I received one day – simply a quote from The Gospel of Matthew with no explanation, nothing to sell and no return address.

The final factor came at Edinburgh in 2001 and was the pain of sitting through a woefully misconceived staging of Allegri’s Miserere. The music is extraordinary, beautiful and haunting and was kept from the world for exclusive use by the Vatican choir until Mozart heard it once, memorised every note and then transcribed it. The performance I suffered had a dancer in a white dress waving her arms in the air and rolling over crucifix-shaped areas of light, presumably in near-orgasmic devotion to Christ. Again I found my gorge rising. The words to Miserere are from Psalm 51. They are Jewish and NOT Christian. The two pieces preceding the Miserere had used video projection combining animated words and images. If only they had extended that to the third piece! If only…

Why the images of the World Trade Center?

I have generally avoided dealing with funding organisations in the past, but since I wanted to use video and to engage musicians to create a new score I decided that for The Gospel of Matthew I needed some financial assistance, so when I got home from the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, I began writing my proposal for submission for inclusion in the Brighton Festival in May 2002 and for funding from South East Arts. After several revisions I finally submitted the proposal and then with the satisfied feeling of having jumped the first hurdle and the excitement of anticipating the birth of a new project, I went for a walk in town. I saw a small crowd of people standing outside a television shop looking in. Wondering what wonderful new televisual technological advancement could cause such a gathering I joined them just as the t.v. mast on the second tower began to sway and slowly sink. My head was still full of the politics and the terror of the holocaust of 70 A.D. when the Romans brutally suppressed the Jewish revolt, sacking Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and (according to a contemporary source) killing more than a million Jews, and as I saw the modern world order rocked as the Towers were destroyed I could not but recall Jesus’s words as he is leaving the Temple in Jerusalem and his disciples propose a sight-seeing tour – “Don’t you see it all… on no stone will be left another stone which is not overthrown.”

The technologically advanced world has been forced to confront the enduring presence and power of religious fundamentalism and appears to be losing the battle. Just as the Roman Empire succeeded in destroying nations but ultimately failed to crush the Word, so it seems the American War on Terror is only capable of seizing territory at the cost of deepening the spiritual opposition. Sadly the maxim that truth is the first victim of war still holds. While of course horrified by the actions of the terrorists, I have been deeply angered by the hypocrisy of our own two grinning leaders, who happily flout their so-called Christian credentials when it boosts their public image, but like so many of their kind seem utterly ignorant of what Jesus came to tell us. And while this show was conceived and pre-production began before September 11th, that day and its aftermath has overshadowed its development.

And yes, at first I did think of somehow using the images of the planes crashing and the towers burning and crumbling to dust… but I quickly decided against. It would have been tasteless and exploitative and rather obvious. Instead the images of the Towers standing in their glory are used to illustrate the scenes in the Temple. The first readers of the Gospels all knew what happened to the Temple in 70 A.D. and the terrible way in which Jesus’s prophecy was fulfilled and we all know what happened on September 11th 2001.

Why a new translation?

A discovery of some common household papyri at the beginning of the 20th century led to the realisation that NT Greek was not a higher, more sacred form of language, as the King James translators thought, but was simply the universal tongue of the Mediterranean world at the time – a legacy of Alexander the Great. In their reverence for the Word (and given their brief to diverge as little as possible from the already archaic Tyndale version) the authorised version effectively created an elaborate new use of the English language, which has tended to overshadow every subsequent effort to produce a new translation.

One aspect of the New Testament commented on by nearly all translators, but in my opinion often missing from the translations they produce, is that the language used (the original Greek) is striking in its brevity and directness. Although various versions are used (and spoken) in church, most tend to reflect the holy scriptural aspect of the bible and aim for literary (and sometimes doctrinal) accuracy rather than linguistic fluency and immediacy. For dramatic performance a version optimised for the stage rather than the page or the pulpit is required.

I originally intended to perform the entire text (and I have indeed translated it all) but during rehearsals it became obvious that the running time would be near to 3 hours, that there was a problem with the amount of repetition and the obvious corruption of certain passages and that a degree of narrative reordering would help the dramatic flow, allowing the listener, who cannot go back and re-read difficult passages, to more easily follow the developments of character, story and message.

The requirement of an interval in the performance strongly influenced my reordering of the material. Most commentators agree that Matthew’s Gospel is divided into five sections, but five into two won’t go. I resorted to a manual cut and paste, scattering my living-room floor with paper and using scissors and tape, dividing and rejoining chunks until I had a whole of two halves. My main objective was to achieve a sense of narrative clarity. In part this is done by making the interval come just before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. So the journey of the first half is Jesus’s mission from Nazareth to Jerusalem, and in the second half it is his persecution from the Temple to the Cross and the Resurrection. There is an underlying thematic journey, which reflects the major theme of Matthew – the identification of the historical Jesus as the Christ (in the first half) and the realisation of the significance of that revelation (in the second).

After the first performances, I decided to take the process of adaptation a little further. For my intended showcase (the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2003) it was important to bring the running time down from 2 hours. However, cutting a further 25% required more than losing the odd sentence here and there. Whole episodes had to go. My guiding principle again had to be narrative necessity – and inevitably this led me to cut some of my own favourite passages (the woman who anointed Jesus with oil and will always be remembered wherever the Gospel is spoken – how could I cut her out – but sadly I did). This was the hardest part. The process seemed so negative.

More positively, I decided to be a little bolder with some of my phrasing… I had already strived to find a fresh and direct language – not some trendy street argot – but a simple everyday English which I was comfortable speaking, and I was happy that my translation worked on this level. But I wanted to have more surprises. I wanted the audience to hear Jesus as if for the first time. So I decided to attempt to bring out some of the variant interpretations – the nuances of meaning which are often present in the Greek phraseology but can get lost when it is transposed into the nearest English equivalent. As one illustration – The Lord’s Prayer is a very familiar passage, so often repeated that few people ever stop to think what it really means. After a little research one finds that, like much of Jesus’s teaching, it is not as simple as it seems, the multiplicities of inflection of meaning in the original language coming close to something like a Japanese haiku, where one word may have as many as twenty different possible readings. I have, perhaps, most freely diverged from the familiar incantation with the line “Give us today our daily bread”… I won’t give my translation here, since I am still experimenting on audiences with different phrasings, but… the original words are an appeal in metaphorical terminology for the strength we need now as a preparation for what is coming… and have nothing to do with there being enough toast for breakfast.

So what are you trying to say?

As the programmer of the Brighton Festival said to me when I first discussed the project with him, when you select and put video images before an audience, you will appear to be making a statement. However, my working method is ‘non-conceptual’. I do not start out with an idea or a message and then systematically try to realise it. Instead I choose material which affects me deeply, and then I work with that material, finding as many different ways of delivering it as I can (often using music as a catalyst to trigger new approaches and accidental discoveries). Finally I use my dramatic instincts to choose what is most effective. The entire process is organic and instinctive, the result is often quite personal but has nonetheless NOT been created by design or with the intention of promoting a pre-conceived message.

I insist that I really am not trying to say anything.

But that is not to say I don’t have a rough idea of how the show should impact on the audience. With The Gospel of Matthew my intention was simple (and perhaps insanely ambitious) ‘What would it have been like to actually witness Jesus, to see him and to hear him speak?’ Through my researches into many aspects of the first century and all shades of opinion regarding the Gospels and their subject, I am convinced that the historical existence of Jesus is certain and that, whether or not he was the Christ, the Gospels were unquestionably inspired by the words and deeds of a real man. As an actor I have to find the inner life and the outer expression of every character, so inevitably the production has focused on Jesus the man, and inevitably portrays a psychological development as the narrative progresses which was not intended by first century ‘biographers’.

For this digression from the original author’s intention I make no apology. The evangelists’ intentions were not just to record events before they disappeared from living memory, but to guide succeeding generations how to interpret those events. My intention is to try to give audiences a glimpse past the evangelists to the original inspiration for writing the Gospels.

What if Jesus was right here, right now?

Has performing this show changed you in any way?

This is a question that has come up more frequently now that I have been performing the show for a number of years. Without betraying my decision not to talk directly about my beliefs (for reasons I explain above) I can say that repeatedly telling the story of Jesus and allowing his spirit to come into me has most definitely affected me. My core beliefs remain unchanged, but the way I live and think about my life has changed, and unquestionably for the better. In a very real way: the twin challenges to forgive and not to judge other people and oneself and the immediate psychological and interpersonal returns which come when one follows these principles – I can honestly say that trying to (and I must stress trying and not always succeeding, but trying to) live by these guidelines has brought me very real rewards in terms of mended relationships and most definitely made me a happier person.