In Dostoevsky’s short story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, the narrator has a vision of an earthly paradise destroyed by Man. He awakens, committed to spreading a message of hope, knowing it to be futile.
In the summer of 1990 I rehearsed The Dream of a Ridiculous Man for my first solo show. The Berlin Wall had fallen earlier in the year and for a few short months it seemed as if the inevitable Nuclear End of the World we had expected and learned to live with was not going to happen after all. Then in August, while I was performing in Edinburgh, Saddam invaded Kuwait. As the oil wells burned the new dawn faded and the prospect of a protracted Ecological Armageddon arrived.
The Dostoevsky story stayed in my solo repertoire and returning to Edinburgh with it in August 2001 was the final trigger for my long planned production of The Gospel of Matthew. I wasn’t to know that, once again, world events would quickly bring into sharp focus the modern relevance of the material I was handling and the urgency of the need for the old truth to be reaffirmed, even though it may seem impossible.
In the summer of 2001 I decided to do The Gospel of Matthew for my sixth solo show. I’d been thinking about it since 1985. Shortly after Live Aid I was sitting on the concourse at Euston Station, browsing the Bible, and 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, Bob Geldof 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 righteous anger in his passionate 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 interrupted in their work by Jesus two thousand years ago. From that moment I knew I wanted to stage The Gospel of Matthew and that the dramatic key to it was the portrayal of a Jesus who is both capable of human anger and driven to anger by humanity.
The next major inspiration for this production came ten years later, 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 wrote 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 obeisance to religious doctrine, scholarly tradition or other ‘external’ factors, 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, but that the text which has survived to us was revised in the late first century to bring it more into line with St Paul’s teachings.
From the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane the followers of Jesus have been divided. The first murderous internecine feud among Christians was between the ‘Gentilising’ and the ‘Judaising’ factions and lasted until 70AD. Matthew tells us that Jesus instructed his disciples not to go to the Gentiles but the risen Christ commanded them to teach all the nations. The Gentilisers, led by Paul, wanted to take the Word to the whole world, while the Judaisers believed it was only intended for the Israelites. When the long-expected Jewish revolt against Roman occupation finally occurred in 70AD the Romans suppressed it with typical brutality, sacking Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and (according to a contemporary source) killing more than a million Jews. Ironically, by destroying the power base of the Judaisers, this first century holocaust led to the victory of the Gentilisers and the spread of Pauline Christianity – ultimately conquering Rome itself. The Diaspora of the Jews (and hence the early Christians) also triggered the writing down of the Gospels, since the widely dispersed movement now had need of a unifying scripture.
Modern orthodoxy holds that Mark was the ‘original’ and Matthew was a corruption of it tailored for the Judaic faction, but before the twentieth century it was generally believed that the Biblical order of the Gospels was the order in which they were written. Powell explains how he thinks the surviving text of Matthew was forged from various, often contradictory, sources. The original, underlying work, which was essentially Judaic in character, was later reworked to make it more palatable for the Gentilisers. However the original work was too well known for it to be totally rewritten, so the result is a kind of unresolved dialectic between the two factions. For me it is this characteristic of Matthew which makes it the most interesting of the Gospels. Unlike the condense Mark (Matthew with the Jewish bits taken out) and the polished Luke (Mark elaborated), 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 an unapologetic work of blatant Pauline propaganda.
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 impulse for me to actually stage The Gospel of Matthew, after 15 years on the back-burner, came 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 afterwards, 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 congregation’s 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. “For f***’s sake … “
After the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, I began to work on a proposal for South East Arts and for the Brighton Festival. After about ten days it was finished, and once I’d posted it, 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 technological advancement could cause such a gathering I joined them just as the t.v. mast on the second tower of the World Trade Center began to sway and slowly sink. My head was still full of the politics and the terror of the holocaust of 70 A.D., and as I saw the modern world order rocking I recalled Jesus’s words as he was leaving the Temple and his disciples proposed a sight-seeing tour – “Don’t you see it all… on no stone will be left another stone which is not overthrown.”
The developed 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 occupying 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 2001, that day and its long aftermath has overshadowed its development.
A discovery of some common household papyri at the beginning of the 20th century led to the realisation that New Testament 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 modern translators 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 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.
Also the requirement of an interval in the performance for the Brighton Festival 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 also a thematic journey (as in Matthew itself) – the build up to the positive identification of Jesus as the Christ (in the first half) and the realisation of the significance of that revelation (in the second).
After the first performances at the Brighton Festival in May 2002, I decided to take the process of adaptation a little further. For the Edinburgh Festival 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, such as the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with oil and will always be remembered wherever the Gospel is spoken. 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. 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 by millions of people who never 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 first seems. The multiplicities of inflection of meaning in the original language come close to the complexity of 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”… The original Greek words have nothing to do with there being enough toast for breakfast but are an appeal in obviously metaphorical terminology for the strength we need now in preparation for what is coming… (You’ll have to come to see the show to find out what I actually say.)
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? I always decline to answer.
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 or read 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 trying to deliver any message, other than that which is in the material.
I will say that I am not an Evangelical. I don’t think I have either the obligation, or even the right, to try to make others believe the same as me. I feel that everyone is responsible for finding their own Way.
So 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, given its long history, its central role in the development of western culture and 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.
George Dillon, July 2004