If you found yourself trying to explain the human condition to an alien or animal, The Man Jesus may be a good place to start: not only for Matthew Hurt’s humanist telling of the Gospel of Mark but also for its brutal analysis of the human condition.
One man (none other than the mellifluous Simon Callow) utterly owns the stage. With his diverse voice and physical acting, he takes the viewer through the many characters of the New Testament, one by one introducing us to a modernised, often heavily accented character. With no props except a pile of chairs and his considerable talent, he manages to keep the audience rapt for two hours plus.
Also, don’t be fooled; although in subject this is clearly a Christian story, there is no piety or alienation in the text. Like the classic storytellers of old, The Man Jesus evokes passion, pain, awe and betrayal: it just so happens that on this occasion, these stories are biblical. His Judas is passionate, idealistic and a sophisticated misanthrope, his Herod a showman, like a modern day politician (or something from The Riot Club) he is brutal and callous, yet charismatic and funny – Boris Johnson anyone? Yet it is the one character we don’t meet who is the most prevalent throughout: Jesus himself.
It is this silent observer who in fact lays humanity bare: you see every emotion, insecurity, impulse and judgement played out to perfection. As we watch people squirm under the silence, we see them vulnerable and small – we see them desperate to be liked, insecure and with their own agenda. It is like watching your Facebook feed in live action form. We watch people manipulated and change, we see Simon Peter deny Jesus and all of humanity’s wonder and shortfall polarized.
None of this could of course be achieved without Callow. I was initially concerned by my attention span at the prospect of seeing one man and the New Testament (let’s face it, that doesn’t sound like a hoot). Yet as soon as he entered the stage, he had me intrigued and soon after captivated. His presence was engaging and his physicality bewildering. He portrayed person after person, each one recognizable and different.
The politics in the play - with echoes of a Tory government and talk of Palestine - means that these stories could have been written today, so prescient are they.
As Hurt says in the programme, Jesus is ‘an exceptional and strange human being who, irrespective of questions of divinity, merits being heard’. This is something that Callow and Hurt have nailed, as the Messiah’s silence speaks louder than any word: I would recommend anyone see this play and listen.