Following the greatest refit the former Newcastle Playhouse has ever known, the newly named Northern Stage Theater has returned to action with the greatest story ever told. Dennis Potter’s 1969 retelling of the final days of Jesus is an unusual calling card for helmer and chief exec Erica Whyman, formerly of London’s Gate Theater. But with its grand political vision and sense of public debate, “Son of Man” gives a bold indication of what her new “epic space” might be capable of.
Already the largest producing theater in northeast England, Northern Stage has invested £9.5 million ($17.9 million) on building a performance space to match. By lowering the level of its studio to that of the main auditorium, it has created a large, flexible area that can hold an audience of up to 700, depending on the seating configuration. The main stage was always wide; now, when joined with the studio, it has considerable depth as well. The plan is to attract international names, such as the Maly Theater of St. Petersburg and Quebec’s Robert Lepage, to complement the company’s own work.
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For the inaugural production, Soutra Gilmour has designed a simple but imposing set of terraced steps to represent the temple in Jerusalem, where much of the action takes place. It doubles as the palatial quarters of Pontius Pilate and the wilderness where Jesus ends his 40-day fast. The tiered levels allow Whyman to make artful arrangements of the actors, using the height as well as the depth to elegant effect.
If the space is big, it seems much less so toward the close of the first half, when the house lights come up and Jesus implores the audience to hold hands. Why should such a simple gesture be so hard, he asks in a tremendous speech that’s as much ’60s flower power as New Testament. The audience’s giggling embarrassment notwithstanding, it’s a moment that demonstrates the democratic potential of this egalitarian space.
In the lead role, Scott Handy is a gaunt and disheveled messiah, his wild hair and unkempt beard giving him the look of a madman, while his penetrating eyes suggest true conviction.
At times he’s a reluctant savior, burdened with doing God’s work when he’d sooner be cutting wood in Nazareth. At other times, he’s a charismatic orator, recruiting his disciples with an irresistible fervor. Yet when questioned by the priests or Adrian Schiller’s urbane Pontius Pilate, he is virtually silent.
It’s a powerhouse performance and one that captures the radical significance of the Christian message. Potter shows how “love your enemies” is a genuinely unsettling idea — all the more so at a time of enemy occupation and tribal unrest. (Parallels with today’s Middle East are not accidental.)
The strength of the play, written for TV by the late author of “Brimstone and Treacle” and “The Singing Detective,” is in the way it gives a political context to the familiar story. The priests are more interested in defending their power than accommodating new religious ideas, Pilate governs with cold-blooded pragmatism (“Ideas are what we fear”) and the king of the Jews confounds everyone with a doctrine of peace. This Jesus is not a timeless icon, but a man rooted in the realities of his age.
This secular vision is illuminating without being sacrilegious, but the more Potter’s play progresses, the more it takes shape as a conventional biblical drama.
Whyman’s production takes its time and treads the narrow line between solemnity and portentousness. It’s grand, sober and epic — sometimes trading narrative drive for stately appearance, although generally fluid and absorbing — but the play never delivers the dramatic twist that the earlier political machinations lead us to expect.
What sets out as a radical new look at an old tale, covering fascinating ethical questions along the way, ends up merely a superior religious pageant.