Approaching its tenth anniversary, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven has been the subject of significant controversy both in the UK and abroad. The premier at the Tron Theatre in 2009 attracted hundreds of demonstrators, outraged at the alleged play’s blasphemy in presenting Jesus Christ as a trans woman, and the retelling of Bible stories through a queer lens. Since then, the play has been performed in several European countries, and in 2014 was translated into Portuguese and presented to a Brazilian audience. These performances prompted violence and legal action from detractors, as well as passionate, unyielding support from appreciative audiences. Since the election of right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in October of this year, performances of the Portuguese translation in Brazil have become perilous acts of political subversion.
When watching English version this evening at the Traverse Theatre, it feels sad accepting the unavoidable fact that the people who would benefit most from the message of tolerance, inclusion and human kindness are not the people likely to be in the audience. Although it seems like writer and performer Jo Clifford is largely preaching to the converted, this does not reduce the power or impact of the piece for those present. In fact, the incorporation of ritual and the recreation of the Eucharist – with the audience sharing wine and bread, before holding hands in alternative prayer – create a genuine sense of the performance as a validating and almost spiritual experience. The novel staging, with the audience sitting together with Clifford at a large table, visually reminiscent of the Last Supper, adds to the sense of intimacy and communion.
Somehow, despite parts of this literally taking the form of a sermon, the performance is neither overly preachy, nor heavy handed. Clifford oscillates between formal address and casual story-telling, presenting with a warm, highly engaging delivery style. The script is also peppered with irreverent humour. Clifford manages the tone skilfully throughout, and the shifts between light and serious are handled smoothly and convincingly.
Familiar parables are given contemporary, progressive twists that have a re-booting impact, allowing the audience to consider their meaning anew. The parable of the Good Samaritan is set in Leith, the injured traveller, priest, Levite and Samaritan are replaced by recognisable local character types. The Prodigal Son, in Clifford’s retelling, returns a trans woman, and the jealous and uptight older brother is forced to confront his own lack of character and positive sense of self. Jesus’ message from the Gospel of John, “he that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her” is rendered especially poignant within the context of Clifford’s discussion of the continued persecution of LGBTQIA people across the world.
Despite the highly political nature of the production, and the ever-present, looming spectre of injustice the play forces us to confront, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is fundamentally a very heart-warming and affirming piece of theatre. After shedding a few tears, audience members leave with a renewed sense of duty towards fellow humans and a confirmed belief in the power of inclusion and kindness. If that doesn’t embody the true spirit of Christmas, what on earth does?