Simon Callow: My new testament

Simon Callow is on a nine-week run of one-night stands with his one-man play. He talks to Colette Sheridan

Simon Callow: My new testament

RENOWNED for his one-man shows on William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, British actor, director and writer, Simon Callow, is bringing his acclaimed solo show, The Man Jesus to Cork’s Everyman Theatre as part of an extensive tour. The play, written by Matthew Hurt and produced by Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, looks at important events in the life of Jesus through the eyes of the people who knew him.

Callow, an accomplished stage actor, is probably best known for playing Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral. He was one of the first actors to publicly come out as gay in his 1984 book, Being an Actor. For Callow, this was one of “the more valuable things” he did in his life. “It was a pretty risky thing to do. A lot of people said I wouldn’t work again.”

Callow says that “everybody expects that when somebody like me does a show about Jesus, it’s going to be controversial or provocative in some way or another. That was never our purpose. It’s fresh and contentious theologically but it’s not in any way an attack on Jesus or what he said. I think people who are of a religious persuasion are thrilled to find that their hero is taken seriously.

“Those who are not religious are likely to find that this is a story that really interests them. It has some ideas which are rather astonishing. If you take the very simple phrase, ‘love your enemies’ and you think about it in the context of the world in which Jesus was preaching, it’s remarkable.

“He was preaching in a middle eastern world which was in the same sort of turmoil that the present Middle East is in with terrorists everywhere in a repressive empire. You need to put ‘love your enemies’ into the right context. Otherwise, it sounds very bland, like something out of a Christmas cracker.”

While Jesus is a pervasive presence in the play, “he is not impersonated by me. It’s more of a collective Ouija board effect. It’s the people who knew him and who dealt with him. Sometimes, they’re talking to him, other times they’re talking about him. They’re always telling the audience about Jesus and revealing things about him from their own perspective. It’s like a Citizen Kane thing. It’s a sort of investigation about who Jesus was and what it was like to be around him.”

Callow plays ten characters who had contact with Jesus, including King Herod, Pontius Pilate, Lazarus and the fishermen.

“I also play Mary three times. I play her when she’s pregnant, I play her when she’s rejected by Jesus and I play her at the cross. In my view, the author has quite brilliantly imagined these people in a way that is based clearly on what is written in the New Testament. He has made them multi-layered and absolutely recognisable.”

Callow was reared as a Catholic and, as a boy, was “very serious and very devoted. I was an altar server and thought of being a priest but then all that kind of fell apart for me when we reverted to the vernacular. It wasn’t a moment of disillusion for me. It was more ‘oh my goodness. Is that what we’ve been saying all along?’”

Describing himself as an agnostic now, Callow says he’s “perfectly prepared to accept the idea that Jesus is a conflation of many different figures put together by the Evangelists and St Paul.”

The show is demanding. “It’s like leaping from one mountain to another. It’s very tough. You have to be incredibly awake mentally in order to do it, to go instantly from Joseph to Mary.”

Callow doesn’t get annoyed by being associated with Richard Curtis’s hit film rather than his many critically acclaimed theatre roles. “Chopin might have been quite cross in his own time if he was best known for the Minute Waltz even though he wrote wonderful concertos. That’s the way of things. You tend to be known for what’s most immediately accessible and catchy. I have no disappointment about being associated with that excellent film.”

He says that performing his one-man shows can all be traced back to English-born Irish actor, Michael MacLiammoir who co-founded the Gate Theatre with Hilton Edwards.

“While I was at Queen’s University in Belfast in 1968, I was Michael MacLiammoir’s dresser for a week. He was adjudicating for the Irish University Drama Association. He had cataracts and couldn’t really write anymore so I noted down all his thoughts. I then dressed him for three performances of The Importance of Being Oscar, his great one man show about Oscar Wilde. I had never seen anything like it.

“Michael invented the form of this living biography where a narrator introduces you to the subject and then plays him and other characters in his life. I later did it in London in the 1990s and it set me on the trail of trying to somehow find theatrical evocations of these great figures at the centre of our culture.”

Apart from an exhibitionist streak, what drew Callow to acting was “what draws many actors. It was the possibility of not being myself which, when I was younger, was very pressing. I didn’t like who I was at all. I was fat, unlovely, awkward and not at ease with myself. But there was no drama class at school. The first time I really acted was in a small part at the drama society of Queen’s University. The next thing, I was playing Trigorin in The Seagull. I had a very interesting and useful illumination that I was absolutely crap and wondered if there was something I could do about that. I left university and went to drama school at the Drama Centre London.”

Callow also wrote to Laurence Olivier looking for advice. “He suggested to a get a job in a box office in a theatre. At that stage, I didn’t write to him with any expectation of becoming an actor. I thought I’d like to be associated with the theatre.”

Currently writing the third volume of his biography of Orson Welles, Callow says that because of “my greediness and agreeing to do too many things, I’m constantly trapped by a series of deadlines.” He says that his working life is “all a little bit exhausting. This tour is crucifying if I may say so. It involves nine weeks of one night stands. The travelling is completely bananas. But it’s a joy because people get excited by it. I think actors have an obligation to tour. It’s in our DNA.

“Actors have always taken to the road to spread the word. It helps keep theatre alive.”

  • ‘The Man Jesus’ is at the Everyman on November 2 at 7.30pm.

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