The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven (4 stars)

Jesus, Queen of Heaven

credit: Aly Wight

Devotional theatre for Christmas

Although it is sometimes overshadowed by controversy – generated by concerned Christians who feel that the performance of a transgendered Jesus might undermine the historical claims of their religion – devotional compassion drives Jo Clifford's imaginatively staged and often challenging reflection on inclusion, persecution and identification. Set around a long table, with hints of formal communion and, consequently, the Last Supper, it is an extended monologue performed by playwright Clifford that moves from repurposing of familiar Gospel episodes and parables and Clifford's personal experiences and interpretations.

Ultimately, Clifford's message breaks down the core Christian message of tolerance and compassion – the prayer that concludes the performance includes the request of a blessing for politicians and the ignorant – with a specific focus on including the queer and transgendered experience. The Prodigal Son becomes a Prodigal Daughter, and the hints of queer inclusion already present in the Gospels are given a focus not familiar from church sermons. Clifford's subtle moments of autobiography, and addressing the audience directly as fellow children of God, fit comfortably within the format, and the peaceful, reflective tone does no violence to the broad mainstream theology that informs the play's opponents.

The controversy revolves around whether Jesus as a transwoman is offensive to the Christian church, an issue which Clifford wisely ignores in the script: the Queen of Heaven accepts herself, and accepts other, inviting them to reconsider the teachings not of the church but of Christ. Despite the informality of the setting, Clifford's delivery does not yet invite conversation but operates as an introduction to the principles of the faith, settling them as a condemnation of transphobia not necessarily as a special case but as part of the condemnation of misogyny, colonialism and homophobia that has undermined the church's commitment to the revolutionary message of the Gospels.

Clifford's script deserves to be understood as part of a rich Christian tradition, exploring the faith of the artist and the community. It does challenge conservative interpretations, shifting attention back in the philosophy of incarnation – that is, God's manifestation as a human – which remains Christianity's most troubling claim. The violence with which it has been greeted in some countries, sadly, suggests that this emphasis on physical rather than spiritual Christianity, draws out the fault-lines in fundamentalist readings of Christianity, which insist on the historicity of Jesus while ignoring the intense implications of the divine entering the world.

Queen of Heaven aims to present two evangelisms, two Gospels: one of the abiding power of Jesus' teaching, the other the good news of a world that can embrace all identities and manifest the sacred in every human soul. As theatre, it sits uncomfortably – it is possible to consider the performance of Christ as sacrilegious, translating the authority of scripture to the fictions of the stage – but this ignores the opportunity that the play offers, to recognise Christ as the Living Word. It speaks to the audience, asking them to imagine what Christianity could be, and to the believer, questioning their assumptions about how salvation and the holy manifest beyond the comfortable congregation without undermining the generous gift of love that Clifford presents at the heart of the New Testament.

Traverse, Edinburgh until 22 Dec.

The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven

Jesus is reinvented as a transgender woman in this work written and performed by Jo Clifford.

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