Twenty-five years after Howard Brenton’s The Romans In Britain created all manner of controversy with its portrayal of male rape on stage, Brenton’s work has returned to the National in the form of new play Paul. Staged in the intimate Cottesloe theatre, Paul tells the tale of Biblical character Saul, whose vision on the road to Damascus changed his life forever. Matthew Amer attended the life-altering press night.
Brenton is clearly no stranger to controversy, and though he may not court it, he seems not to be shy of teasing it like a small child playing with a wasp, waiting for it to sting him. In Paul, the possibility of controversy comes from the central idea that Jesus did not die on the cross, so could not have risen again. Instead he survived his execution and appeared in reality to those who saw ‘visions’. One such visionary is Paul, whose interpretation of Jesus’s teaching differs from that of the other apostles.
Damascus, Corinth and a Roman jail are conjured in the round of the Cottesloe’s auditorium, where ruinous buildings of grey and yellow rock, pock-marked and weathered, provide the setting for the central character’s change from Saul, scourge of the followers of Jesus, to the renamed and reborn Paul, apostle of Christ.
Though seemingly ancient rock dust hangs in the air like a haze, this is not the Middle East of the first century. Soldiers wear army fatigues and carry guns, electric lights hang above buildings, rock tiles sit next to glass tiles, and a tap provides running water to both drink and baptise.
The appropriately named Adam Godley, who took the title role only after Paul Rhys withdrew from the production, plays a man, both as Saul and Paul, who has a seemingly unshakable belief. When persecuting Christians, he orates to his soldiers, convincing them, as he is convinced, of the correctness of what they are doing. After seeing his Lord on the road to Damascus – a tired, worn Jesus dressed entirely in white – he is equally fervent in his belief that the end of the world is nigh and the good news must be spread. But with the full-voiced passion also come moments of wide eyed innocence such as his delivery of the famous speech on love to a group Corinthians more concerned with the sinful nature of sex.
Lloyd Owen’s Peter, though he knows the truth about Jesus and is complicit in aiding his ‘teacher’, still gets drawn into Paul’s preaching, such is the power of Paul’s convictions. It is only at the end, as the two followers await their imminent executions in a Roman jail, that Peter decides to share the truth with Paul. The anger-consumed follower that he has been for much of the play melts into an apologetic shell, feeling shame both for what he has done to Paul and that he has been swept up by his own deception.
While Mary Magdalene is portrayed as Jesus’s wife – he married her “to spite his mother and father” – and James sends Paul away to the Gentile word more to be rid of an irritant than to spread the word, the power of Paul’s passion and belief dominates more than any controversial plotting. This is most apparent as the play draws to a close as Peter, even after his confession of the truth, spends his final night in Paul’s arms, chanting “Christ is Risen”.
Paul is booking at the National’s Cottesloe theatre until 4 February.