By Guy Webster
It has been less than two years since Jo Clifford’s The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven premiered at 2021’s Midsummer Festival to near-instant acclaim and it has been thirteen years since it first appeared at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in 2009. At Midsummer Festival it earned a Green Room Award for Best Independent Theatre Production. While rave reviews – and one raving Archbishop of Glasgow – followed its season at Tron Theatre. Across continents, hemispheres and years, word of this show has spread like any good gospel should. It returns for Midsummer Festival this year at fortyfivedownstairs with a renewed prescience. A lot can happen in thirteen years. A lot can happen in two.
For 60-minutes, we bear witness to a queer retelling of biblical narratives that centre the experience of trans and gender non-conforming people. Our Jesus is a transwoman (Kristen Smyth). She enters barefoot, shrouded in a glittering velvet coat to offer us a sermon backed by a chorus of four (Mel O’Brien, Alexandra Amerides, Andre Sasalu, and Willow Sizer). Before long and she is sitting amongst her audience, revisiting familiar biblical stories with a conversational informality that belies a searing attack on the repressive dogmas proffered by so many churches against queer people.
Clifford’s writing is both uncompromising and playful. There is a joyfulness to the way she subverts and expands on well-established parables. The Prodigal Daughter sinks her money into expensive dresses; her return to her Father offering a quietly affecting allegory for coming out. The Good Samaritan comes in the form of a St Kilda ‘Queen’ still wiping ejaculate from her lips. She saves the injured with an easy charity that flies in the face of the pious Archbishop. This is a ‘Queendom’ of heaven where pleasure is sacred and binaries dull. ‘Dad, you’re going to be a grandma’, Jesus recounts with a casual radicalness that transcends gender with revelrous ease.
As our Jesus, Smyth carries herself with a casual self-assurance that demands attention. Her cadence is calm and sermonic without ever slipping into the pontifical. Her quiet confidence makes the queerness of these biblical stories seem self-evident – in many ways, this is the take away of the show. From parable to parable, Smyth glides across a square panel of grass in the centre of the space with elegance, authority, and sparkling nails. Yet moments of righteous anger are delivered with a gut-wrenching power. She does not censor herself, nor her critique of the violence inflicted on trans people in the name of religion.
Director Kitan Petkovski makes expert use of the tight confines of fortyfivedownstairs. The intimacy afforded the audience by Smyth’s conversational tone is complemented perfectly by blocking that favours audience interaction and allows Smyth time to luxuriate in Clifford’s dense text. Placed in the round (Set Design by Bethany J Fellows is spare and affecting), audiences are afforded a more informal, immersive church-going experience. Lighting Design by Katie Sfetkidis is subtle, favouring warm tones and artful transitions that complement the overall atmosphere of near-heavenly quietude.
In the absence of any overarching plot, transitions from parable to parable are aided helpfully by a chorus of four that sit in the audience. Conducted with ease by Willow Sizer and featuring compositions by one of Melbourne theatre’s best composers working to date, Rachel Lewindon, this choral backing moves alongside Smyth’s delivery to land the show’s emotional beats with precision and perfect harmony.
This is a deeply affecting piece of theatre beautifully executed in a tightly wound 60 minutes. Buoyed along by angelic melodies and wry witticisms, one is left with a deeply stirring sense of just how radical this form of gospel remains. Whether 2009, 2019, or 2023, Jo Clifford and this team of creatives have created something that transcends the church-like and instead represents a coming together – a holier communion, perhaps – of queer community. As audience members sniffle, laugh and applaud, they make their own chorus that resembles something akin to the divine, or better.