A few months ago as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (poorly funded, so they couldn’t afford to stage a full one!), Jesus: The Guantanamo Years played at lunchtime in The Black Box. I missed it, but had followed the link from the festival’s website to the comedian’s Bebo page, and left him a message asking if the show would be coming back.
Significantly more than forty days and forty nights later, Dublin-born Abie Philbin Bowman got back to me today, saying that he was currently with the show in London, but would be bringing it back to The Black Box in September. Put that date in your diaries.
Over in London for most of the week, I wandered down through Covent Garden towards Leicester Square and picked up a ticket for tonight’s show as the bell rang to announce five minutes to curtain up.
It was opening night for Jesus: The Guantanamo Years in the West End, playing in the small Arts Theatre (on Great Newport Street) to an even smaller audience. But packed into the first six rows were many
followers fans of Abie’s stand, including one (in the picture below) who had especially flown across from Dublin for the opening night.
The premise is that God has decided to return to earth to set the record straight and explain what Christianity is really about. Fans who meet up once a week for an hour in a specially made building to talk about how good he is may not have got the whole point.
But God’s a bit old to start travelling at his age. Jesus’ previous comedy tours Jesus live on the Mount and the Miracle Tour (five thousand turned up) went down well with the crowds, so he’s offered to go back on the road for his father.
With only a stool, plastic cup of water and a mic to hide behind, a long-haired, bearded Jesus occupies the stage for the next hour wearing Moses sandals and a bright orange jump suit.
Lots of ad-libbing, and well able to deal with hecklers. A few first night problems with the simple lighting were covered over with a “Dad’s playing tricks on me again” gag. And even a topical joke about the Olympic logo (one of which is exactly the colour of Jesus’ garish jumpsuit).
Wanting to maximise the impact of his recommunication with humanity, Jesus caught a flight to the US to kick off his tour. Homeland Security though had a problem with him being born in Palestine, having a beard, no fix abode (though until recently lived with his father) ... and his Israeli record as a radical troublemaker willing to die for religion is the last straw.
“Welcome to the land of the free ... conditions apply!”
Shipped off to Guantanamo—there’s some brilliant material comparing it to KFC—Jesus is perhaps the only Jew incarcerated in the camp. And so we arrive at the point of the show. Having taken the opportunity for a range of jokes aimed at all kinds of religious targets, Abie gets down to business, taking pop after pop at the hypocrisy of the west’s war on terror.
Whereas Mozaam Begg (saw him at 2006 Belfast Festival) makes argument by being disarmingly honest and unnecessarily graceful about his treatment, Abie uses humour to cut away at the myths surrounding war-related prisoners who are detained at the pleasure of the US in Cuban battery hen cages, and makes a strong case for why Guantanamo is so unchristian. There’s a poignancy to his statement:
“Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.”
(Jesus quoting from his old material, not the new stuff)
There’s a great moment after Jesus has escaped from Guantanamo when he explains that he needed to find somewhere to live (and tour) that he’d feel at home in religiously and also where they’d know how to deal with terrorists ... so he walks across the Gulf Stream to Belfast, where his orange jump suit, striking Belfast accent, and meet-up with the UDA quickly divert him down to Dublin.
Over the course of the hour long monologue:
- we learn that Jesus doesn’t believe in atheists;
- Jesus is being chased by the paparazzi—the Pope and the photographers!
- and most importantly, not all middle-eastern bearded men are terrorists.
I’m not sure if Judith Elliott will be popping up on Sunday Sequence or Arts Extra to review this show anytime soon, but if she does, it’ll be interesting to see what she says! The show takes few prisoners, so if you (and your faith) are easily offended, it’s not for you. But if you’re willing to look beyond the bluster and the sharp wit, you’ll find a comic using his talent to expose one of the shameful wonders of the modern world. And if you take the position that you shouldn't “refuse light from any quarter”, then you might ponder if Jesus would forgive Abie’s portrayal with a posh Dublin accent and join in the condemnation of Guantanamo?
If you’re in London this week, check it out. And if you’re intrigued, put it in your diary and book a ticket for the Belfast shows on 6th and 7th September.
The photo above shows Jesus relaxing in the theatre’s bar with some of his followers fans, still drinking water from his plastic cup!
Abie - thanks for the (un)timely email earlier today, and good luck with the West End run!"