The red states won't exactly be lining up to produce "Paul," Howard Brenton's unapologetically secular play about Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the Apostle. But nor will those Britons busy protesting the play in advance of its National Theater preem find much in the end to get exercised about. Surprisingly serious, even sober-minded, play is hardly the "Jerry Springer -- the Opera"-style essay in facetious blasphemy one might have expected. Instead, it's an often dogged, theatrically cautious treatment of a hot-potato topic: the agreed-upon fiction, per Brenton anyway, that is faith.

The red states won’t exactly be lining up to produce “Paul,” Howard Brenton’s unapologetically secular play about Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the Apostle. But nor will those Britons busy protesting the play in advance of its National Theater preem find much in the end to get exercised about. Surprisingly serious, even sober-minded, play is hardly the “Jerry Springer — the Opera”-style essay in facetious blasphemy one might have expected. Instead, it’s an often dogged, theatrically cautious treatment of a hot-potato topic: the agreed-upon fiction, per Brenton anyway, that is faith.

Leaving aside “Saint Joan,” there are so few plays about belief that Brenton deserves credit on that front alone, with the lion’s share of production kudos going to Adam Godley and Lloyd Owen, who play Paul and Peter, respectively. At the end of a scenario not much more shocking than a Dan Brown novel, the two come together in a genuinely thrilling final encounter that is a masterpiece of equivocation.

With Paul prompting Peter to repeat after him, “Christ is risen,” their hortatory duologue sounds both a cautionary alarm and suggests what for many is the simple fact of faith: “Say it. And believe it,” urges Paul in passing on to Peter the baton of belief. In matters spiritual, the word makes it so: We are the sum total of our inner incantations.

It’s a great scene, played for keeps by two splendid, nicely contrasting thesps. Godley turns out to be the perfect guide for converts and nonbelievers alike through a play that could be called the prequel to “Two Thousand Years,” the Mike Leigh drama about the nature of faith today in which Godley has a small (if elegantly acted) part.

If “Paul” took its entire cue from the inspiration of Brenton’s closing scene, Howard Davies’ empathic staging might amount to more than the sum of its decidedly piecemeal parts. Instead, the play for much of the evening seems a study in unexceptional revisionism that won’t disturb any but those who have been hiding under the most sacred rock. In Brenton’s view of the Saul/Paul trajectory, his conversion on the road to Damascus was little more than the latest episode in the life of a delusional fantasist.

From there, you can guess for yourself the conclusions drawn about some of Christianity’s best-known “facts,” which get eroded well before the arrival of a masked Nero (Richard Dillane) and his cynical corrective to the realm of prophesy. Faith is grounded in the necessity for “stories” on the one hand, an elaborate plot on the other. And why shouldn’t religion in essence be so much spin for a modern age in which ideologues are daily wreaking havoc? Brenton is hardly the first writer to refract our difficult times through the ancient past; his references to an age of “religious revolt” then hang portentously in the air now.

The more literal-minded will surely want greater majesty than Pearce Quigley brings to his perf as Yeshua, or Jesus, and Kellie Bright’s earthy, bitchy Mary Magdalene is a time-tested alternative type. (“You know why He married me?” she snaps. “To spite his mother and father.”) But far from succumbing to wholesale slander, Brenton keeps the possibility of belief alive in the fervent form of Paul, who won’t be diverted from his mission the more the counterarguments pile up.

Davies marshals his cast in modern-dress on Vicki Mortimer’s white-washed ruin of a set, Owen’s initially skeptical, none-too-saintly Peter taking top honors apart from Paul. Yeshua is “a man,” Peter insists, not a divinity risen from the dead, and a rich-voiced Owen makes a typically robust case for what some will regard as heresy. But that’s to discount the force field imparted by Godley, whom Paule Constable’s lighting more than once bathes in a radiant glow. Is faith merely a hypnosis practiced by the mad, or does it possibly contain meaning? The answer is up for grabs in a staging communicating no doubts about its leading man, that rare actor seemingly illuminated from within.

Paul

National Theater/Cottesloe; 287 Seats; £27.50 ($47) Top

Production

A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Howard Brenton. Directed by Howard Davies.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Vicki Mortimer; lighting, Paule Constable; music, Dominic Muldowney; sound, John Leonard. Opened, reviewed Nov. 9, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Paul - Adam Godley Barnabas - Colin Tierney Peter - Lloyd Owen Mary Magdalene - Kellie Bright Nero - Richard Dillane Yeshua - Pearce Quigley
With: Howard Saddler, Tas Emiabata, Eugene Washington, Dermot Kerrigan, Paul Higgins.

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