THE Man Jesus is a chance to hear “the greatest story ever told” through the eyes of those who knew the founder of Christianity – all played by Simon Callow in a one-man show.
The actor, who switches from Mary to Herod and Pontius Pilate to Judas Iscariot (among others) and back again, says the production is the natural conclusion to his love of acting out the lives of special men.
“I’ve done a series of plays about great figures in our society like Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens and Wagner,” he explains.
“I always knew at some point I’d want to do Jesus because he’s the central figure of the past 2,000 years of culture and history in the West.”
The chance came when he was invited to put on a show by Belfast’s Lyric Theatre and the actor best known for his big screen appearances in Four Weddings and A Funeral and Shakespeare In Love immediately recommended they commission writer Matthew Hurt to create a show about Jesus.
“He went away and immersed himself in the subject – and he created this remarkable play,” says Simon (pictured).
“Jesus is essentially seen through the eyes of others – his mother, Herod, Pontius Pilate, Judas, Simon and so on.
“The hope is it creates a multi-faceted view of Jesus. So, whenever he’s quoted, the characters speak the words in their own accent and you don’t even have a unified voice of Jesus. You hear all these familiar sayings of Jesus, but in different accents and tones.
“The effect is very challenging and stimulating for the audience. At least it seems so. It’s wonderful to think people can get that excited about these stories.”
The Man Jesus takes in well known Bible tales like the revival of Lazarus, the wedding at Cana and the journey to Jerusalem and Simon – brought up as a Catholic but now firmly agnostic – says you don’t need to be religious to appreciate them.
“For many people nowadays Jesus is an irrelevant figure,” he says. “I’m absolutely agnostic myself, so I’m not making any claims for the universal truth of what Jesus said.
“What I’m attracted to do is draw attention to what he said, which is startling and very difficult to follow in many cases. He was the centre of human life in the West until about 100 years ago.”
Of his own faith – or lack of it – Simon says: “In my early teens I started to discover other religions and realised that what I’d been brought up to believe as a Catholic – that we had a monopoly on the truth – was obviously ridiculous.
“I came to the conclusion that religion is an invention of the human mind – but a great invention of the human mind.”
He says many non-Christian people have enjoyed the show. “To my amazement, a lot of people – especially younger people – who come along seem to be completely unaware of any of it and often the come and say ‘What a story!’ and I say ‘Yes, it’s the greatest ever told’.
“They certainly are wonderful stories. There’s a kind of human truth about them which is remarkable and when someone tells them as they were written.”
Simon creates the characters alone on stage with no costume changes and very little scenery.
“This is all about the power of the actor’s ability to shape-shift,” he says. “It’s not about make-up or costume, it’s about taking on a different character.
“It’s hard. You have to go from being Mary to Judas in a split second. But it’s my job to make people believe I am someone else.
“The most wonderful thing you can have in the theatre is the silence of people waiting to see what happens next…”