Behold! The Monkey Jesus -  a (kind of) restoration comedy

From the extraordinary story of Cecilia Giménez (Mary Tillett), writer Joe Wiltshire Smith has created a beautifully crafted play that embraces her innocence and resilience, while exploring the consequences of good intentions gone awry.

A delightfully simple story told with clarity, heart and wit

Smith adheres faithfully to a simplified historical record, while still investing in the debate that surrounds Cecilia’s actions. There is no need for embellishment as the story stands on its own merits. Cecilia is a devout daughter of the church who spends her time cleaning the building. She married as a teenager and lost her husband a couple of years later. Their son was born with weak knees that increasingly limited his ability to move. In her spare time she acquired some knowledge of painting, but went on to prove the validity of the maxim that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In her church of the Sanctuary of Mercy in Borja, Spain, there hung an unremarkable fresco depicting Jesus; Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), painted by the minor Spanish painter Elías García Martínez (Roger Parkins) in 1930.

In their first set of roles Tillet and Parkins play the mother superior and the painter, respectively. The artwork is controversial from the outset. Parkins conveys the plight of an honest artist trying to scrape a living and be paid for the work he has done. But he’s met his match this time as Tillet determinedly sets all Christian charity aside and with matriarchal indignation fails to see how a man could expect to be rewarded with a substantial sum for a work that is anything but traditional. It acts as an impressive lesson for the nun (Louise Beresford) who looks on in awe at the mother superior’s command of ecclesiastical economics. The scene also opens up the ongoing debate about the nature of art. Disrobed, Beresford pops up throughout the play as a sort of roving reporter, cum narrator, stopping the action to comment on what is taking place in often amusing interjections.

By 2012 the paint had started to peel from the damp wall when the artist’s granddaughter announced that she wished to marry in the church. Despairing of the work’s poor condition, Cecilia and the parish priest discuss having it restored. Fearful of the cost (ecclesiastical miserliness is a recurring and often amusing theme) and with an offer from Cecilia to do the job herself, the work proceeds in the public gaze.

Seemingly, however, no one paid any attention to what she was doing until it was too late. Parkins, now as the priest, gives a wonderfully distraught and angry lament for the lost treasure, as though the world has fallen in on him, as he ponders what he is going to tell the family and how he will explain it to the Church. Word of the disaster spreads like the plague, assisted by social media, and within days the humble Cecilia had become an internet sensation. The lean pointed features of Christ are now rounded and chubby and in no time at all in a fusion of Latin and Spanish based on its original title it was heralded as Ecce Mono, (Behold the Monkey).

Every cloud has a silver lining, however, and before long it was pouring into the coffers of the church and the pocket of Cecllia, now in her eighties, as visitors arrived in their thousands. There was, of course, a lot of debate about where the money should go and if Cecilia had any claim to it. Again, Tillet and Parkins engage in determined banter and establish their respective positions, but she gives a far mightier and more rational case then he might have expected in order to win the day. A moving scene at the end, when Beresford appears as the granddaughter of Martínez, gives yet another moving dimension to this multilayered play.

Director Scott Le Crass has created a rustic simplicity in the telling of this story, on a set in which ultimately the three versions of the painting appear almost as a triptych, with an air of haunting mystery created by the subtle lighting of Joseph Bryant. With a uniformly talented cast, who create clearly identifiable characters, he evenly balances the humour and the historical narrative drawing on the naturalism of Smith’s dialogue to create an absorbing and engaging production. This is clearly a team effort by people who understand each and respond accordingly.

There is another unseen character in the play. Cecilia engages in several conversations which require the voice of Jesus to be heard. It’s that of famous female actor, which might drive you mad if you recognise it but can’t put a name to it. No spoilers here, but you can ask after the show, to see if you got it right. But don't let it detract from your enjoyment of a delightfully simple story told with clarity, heart and wit.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

2012. Borja, Spain. Cecilia, a local parishioner and amateur artist, is about to change history. With the best intentions, her careful “restoration” of a beloved church fresco causes her to become an overnight internet sensation. With the outrage from the church and the ridicule from the world, how far is Cecilia willing to go in order to protect her masterpiece? A surreal black comedy about faith, self-expression and the viral sensation that is and will always be… the monkey jesus.

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