Review by Megan Mitchell
The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven is showing until the 8th of May at Theatreworks in St Kilda, as part of Melbourne’s Midsumma festival. Midsumma Festival celebrates queer art and culture, and this show, created by playwright Jo Clifford in 2009 not only explores these themes, but is also more relevant than ever. Using Clifford’s powerful script, director Kitan Petkovski and performer Kristen Smyth have collaborated to create something truly special.
The production itself doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure; it is more a sharing of ideas, anecdotes, stories and lessons, as told by Jesus in a world where she is trans, and belongs to the Queendom of Heaven. Smyth takes on the phenomenal role of Queen Jesus, and is musically accompanied by a choir of angels (Willow Sizer, Mel O’Brien, Tomas Parrish and Sherry-Lee Watson). The pace is slow but definitely doesn’t drag – this is theatre you can savour. Smyth’s gentle tones, the muted lighting and set, and the harmonies underscoring throughout lull you into a sense of being completely present. There are of course dramatic events – as we know, the story of Jesus’ life was not without challenges. But the show so easily envelops you in this world, it suspends you from reality for the entire 50-minute duration, as though you have just wandered into a dream.
Rachel Lewindon’s musical composition provided depth and dimension to what is essentially a monologue, and helped set the overall tone. I really enjoyed the interactions between Queen Jesus and her choir of angels – it was subtle and attentive, and created a real sense that we as the audience were privileged to witness it.
Queen Jesus talked of many things; she seemed to blend very modern issues, like losing your child in a supermarket with more metaphorical and biblical themes. ‘Love thy neighbour’ was exemplified through the story of a mugging victim in St Kilda and their drag queen rescuer. Crucially this did not feel simply dropped in for the sake of being relevant to a Theatreworks audience – it felt organic, which I think speaks to the universality of Clifford’s story and themes.
The set was simple but striking; intelligent lighting design paired with evocative, made-to-be-broken props representing Jesus’ body and blood. The production crew and cast seemed very in sync; the complex A cappella harmonies never wavered, the cues were never late, and the attention never slipped. Best of all, the performers simply seemed joyous to be performing.
Of course, despite this intuitive direction, stunning costuming, brilliant script, slick production and professional supporting cast, the show would have gone to pieces without the right leading lady.
Kristen Smyth shone as Queen Jesus. From the moment she entered, Smyth exuded a sense of calm and love – her presence created not just a trust with the audience, but a sense of acceptance and reciprocal appreciation.
Her delivery was reminiscent of a sermon, a confession, a Shakespearean monologue, and a private moment. This is equally due to the breathtaking performance as it is to Clifford’s impeccable writing. Smyth happens to be predominantly a writer as well, so when I found out this was her debut as a performer, I was genuinely shocked. Her vulnerability, generosity, technical skill and clear investment in the role made for such a memorable performance I really thought she was a well-seasoned stage actor.
Smyth’s connection to text and story was thoughtful in a way that made pauses felt more like considerations, and her internal life was so fascinating it was impossible to look away. She had a way of speaking that felt as though she was talking to each audience member individually. And at no point, despite the heightened nature of the language in some parts, did it feel like ‘a performance’ or ‘preaching’ in the pejorative sense. It felt simply like Queen Jesus sharing her thoughts on the need for change, love and acceptance. My only niggling critique would be that I wanted more of her; she seemed to favour one direction in Theatreworks’ 360 degree performance space, and from where I was seated, I only saw the back of her head for the first 10 minutes.
Good theatre has the power to transport and transform– a cliché, but one that held true for this production. The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven deserves every bit of praise it gets, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.