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The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven

PART OF THE Blether ISSUE

‘Sermons can be so difficult! But look at you You’ve just listened to one Very beautifully How clever are you’

10 years ago, Jo Clifford premiered her new theatrical production The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven where biblical stories are reimagined by a transgender Jesus. Its staging caused a storm amongst theatregoers and beyond, some seeing it as too controversial, many others welcoming its message of love and acceptance. Stewed Rhubarb have published a 10th anniversary edition with the full script, plus reminiscences of those involved or inspired by its various productions across the world.

 

Extracts taken from The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven
By Jo Clifford
Published by Stewed Rhubarb

 

Jo Clifford

I remember that on that occasion 26,573 people signed an online petition asking the City of Edinburgh Council to ban the show; and a lonely man with an array of placards that told us THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH keeping a lone vigil outside the Traverse. I remember the bedraggled protestors outside the venue in Belfast, who had brought along a loudhailer, and a man with bagpipes to try to silence my voice.

I remember the man who filmed himself sitting in his car outside St John Chrysostom’s Church in Manchester, a bit bewildered because he was the only one trying to protest against me when ‘the show so clearly breaks the canon law of the Church of England,’ he said indignantly, holding up his well-thumbed leather-bound copy. He’d posted the video on YouTube and the next one to come up was from an evangelical group in America expressing their disgust at the show. ‘And this’ said their commentator, ‘This is the demon responsible for it.’ And up came my picture, and I understood that for many people I am evil incarnate.

Which is strange, given that the show celebrates love. I can’t begin to understand the reasons for the hatred the show provokes. I worry about the dangers my sisters have faced in Brazil in their courageous resistance to censorship. I love the fact they have taken the show in a completely different direction from ours.

We now have two productions: one for theatrical spaces, and one for everywhere else. We can now perform the show absolutely anywhere. And I hope we can continue to do so. We have filmed the production, so that people can see it in private in those many countries where it is dangerous to see it in public.

Right now, we are preparing to perform in Brussels; later this year, it will be in Glasgow again, to celebrate the show’s tenth anniversary. I don’t know what will happen next. I never have. I never thought the show would last so long, or so many people would see it, or that through it I would come to see myself as a performer.

I’m proud of it. Of all the one hundred plays I have written, perhaps it’s this one of which I’m the proudest.

And I think it may be doing some good in the world.

 

Rachael Rayment
Director of the original production

I was drawn to the play because it was so profoundly personal and intimate. For me, the play was about Jo, her Christian faith, her relationship to Jesus, the teachings of the Gospels and a defiant public expression of self. The very act of performing it was, as Jo herself says, a confrontation and exorcism of shame. At its core, it touched upon a deep sense of sacredness, humanity and compassion that was universal.

I didn’t have to be trans, or Christian, to understand and be deeply moved by it.

 

Susan Worsfold
Director, designer and founding director of Queen Jesus Productions

Queen Jesus is a work of devotion. Of devotion to ourselves and to being present with one another. To commune. It is constantly evolving, changing and deepening, dependant on where those of us who create it are in ourselves and where the audience are in their lives. To witness this is an ongoing journey and a continuous barometer of where the personal present meets the politics of its time.

. . .

We don’t bring a play, we bring a world. How we are with one another, how we consider one another, how we love one another directly impacts on how we open the doors to ourselves and to the audience.

This is always the time. This is always the place. This is always where we meet each other.

 

Chris Goode
Artistic director of Chris Goode & Company

The first time I saw Queen Jesus, live and in the flesh, was in 2013. Jo had come to be part of a mini-season I’d programmed at a now-closed (and much-missed) little indie theatre in Exeter. I didn’t know her too well back then, but we were proud to have her with us, and thrilled to be bringing Jesus to town.

. . .

Constantly oscillating between fragility and robustness, there is a level of presence in Jo—a fierce vibration of energy and psychic sensitivity—that feels almost supernatural, but is also profoundly human. Not a transcendence, but a kind of transpondence: a remarkable alertness to the signals alive in the room, the traces, the ghost whispers, invisible but palpable as a prickling on the skin, a shimmering in the mind. This mode of presence is the very essence of theatre as a social and political and spiritual act: but I’ve seldom seen it enacted, embodied, with such absolute fidelity.

What I remember just as clearly, though, is Jo staying with us in the tiny flat that we’d rented down the road from the theatre; the conviviality of decent wine (she insisted on that!) and good companionship, generous laughter and unguarded conversation. And behind it all, the smell of fresh-baked bread, specially made for the evening show. I think perhaps only a female Jesus—a grandmotherly Jesus—would bake her own bread.

 

Fiona Bennett
Minister of Augustine United Church, Edinburgh

The first time I encountered Queen Jesus was through reading the script. Our church (Augustine United Church in Edinburgh, where Jo is a member) planned to put on a performance of Queen Jesus as part of Pride. Given the horrific hatred Queen Jesus has received in Glasgow, Jo wanted me, as the minister, to read the script before we put it on. Reading the script, as someone who wrestles with and interprets scripture all the time, was delightful. Jo’s sense of the nuance, honour and tension in the Biblical stories is very good, but reading the script is only a shadow of encountering it in performance.

For the Pride performance, we sat in a huge circle and Jo enabled us to meet Jesus in a new yet very familiar way. I have seen Queen Jesus performed five or six times now and each time is for me a fresh encounter with the living God.

What is amusing about Queen Jesus is how conventional it is! Queen Jesus offers us teaching and stories very much along the lines brother Jesus did. But her identity as a transwomen (and the glorious craft in the words and performance) make the story intimate, relevant and alive. After the first time I saw Queen Jesus performed I described it as a ‘devotional’ piece, which in my mind is just exactly what it is. It is an expression of Jo’s heartfelt spirituality and sits on the cusp of theatre as liturgy, inviting the audience to taste God’s love and hope as Jesus revealed.

 

James T. Harding
Publisher, editor and designer for Stewed Rhubarb

I was raised by a recovering Catholic who sent me to Protestant Sunday schools and told me it was all nonsense each week when I returned home. The results of this were an aesthetic appreciation for ceremony, a tendency to question authority, and a snooty distain for the type of evangelism that waves a tambourine. In other words, little more than spiritual trappings.

I have been blessed to see Queen Jesus in several of its different incarnations. It has changed much over the time I have been a part of its congregation, both in text and in presentation, but one thing has remained constant: the queer people in the audience. Sometimes it’s literally the same people, who I recognise in the crowds at the book launch, the church, the festival, the theatre. Always, however, there is a glint of solidarity in people’s eyes, a glimpse of a spiritual queer communion which is quite different from the community feeling of a pride event or the party atmosphere of a club.

This, for me, is the power of Queen Jesus incarnate: a spirituality which does better than merely tolerate queer people, it makes the queer part of us a source of spirituality and wisdom.

 

The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven by Jo Clifford is published by Stewed Rhubarb, priced £10.99

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