When Jo Clifford ("proud father and grandmother") first performed her play, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, at Glasgow's Tron Theatre, it attracted both full houses and some 500 protestors outside the building. Nearly a decade later, the outrage continues: one petition, demanding that Edinburgh's Christmas festival apologises for including this "blasphemous" play in its 2018 programme, has attracted more than 26,000 signatures so far. Yet reviews continue to touch on five stars.
There's little here that can be described as memorable.
The problem, though, is that both reactions strike me as having their foundations more in the play's subject (critiquing Christianity through a queer, and in particular trans, perspective) rather than the actual quality of the play itself. It's difficult otherwise to understand how anyone could become quite so impressed or incensed by this portentious, pretentious sermon performed with such soporific repetition that its hour-long running time feels interminable. Yes, there are a few, all-too-brief moments when genuine poignancy magically touches the heart, but they're fragile islands soon drowned under the rising water of uninspired Biblical plagiarism.
"Beware the self-righteous and the hypocrite," our Jesus says. Perhaps she should add theatre critics on that list, but it's a dangerous assertion to make, given how close Clifford subsequently comes to glorifying the trans and queer. "Think poetically," she adds: yet there's little here that can be described as memorable, let alone "poetic". The script frequently lumbers as much as Clifford does physically around the long table which constitutes the "set"; the predictable recasting of familiar Biblical parables (a drunken "Queen" becoming the Good Samaritan, the prodigal son transitioning into a daughter, etc) alas retain their horrendous innate superiority.
It would certainly be interesting to see this work performed by a trans actor capable of presenting this Jesus, less mannered, as distinctly less authorial. This may well explain its international success; as it is, if this "Gospel" has anything to say about the state of trans and queer rights in the world, it's that we're sadly still at the point where we'll praise something for being done at all, rather than for it being done well.