By BRUCE DENNILL
The Man Jesus / Directed by Robert Whitehead / Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg
Sex and politics form the thread of hundreds of plays. It is the third of the (if you will) holy trinity of Things Not To Talk About – religion – that is at the centre of this one-man show.
While only one man is onstage, there are a dozen characters, all of them associated with Jesus and the events that surrounded His life and ministry on Earth. Surrounded by a simple, textured set (piled wooden pallets lined with rolled-up scrolls), Lebohang Teko morphs from Mary, Christ’s mother, to Pontius Pilate, via a a number of other figures including apostles and political figures.
Teko’s talent for inhabiting a character is phenomenally displayed in each of his roles, but perhaps among the most impressive of the many hard-hitting moments are the short segues between characters where, with just the adjustment of the robe he wears throughout and a change of timbre and pitch in his voice, Teko becomes a different person. Beyond those physical transformations, there is also the exquisite attention to detail paid to the way each character’s perspective is verbally delivered, helping the audience to better understand their surprise, anger, confusion or other intent.
Director Robert Whitehead and Teko has have localised the script – writer Matthew Hurt is a South African, but his work has been staged all around the globe – by using local accents and phrasings for many of the characters. In less assured hands, this could be a disaster, but here it adds humour and accessibility without reducing authenticity. The script is neither overly preachy nor dedicated to being purely documentary, and the net result is that nobody leaves feeling awkward in terms of what they have been confronted with. This is primarily drama – the characters it gives voice to lived through an astonishing time, and all Hurt and the creators of this production had to do was package the material in a new way that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.