Review – The Witness, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th May 2023

The WitnessI’m no expert on the matter, gentle reader, but, until last night, I’d never come across the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. I’d always been just a Matthew Mark Luke and John kind of a chap. But now I’m intrigued. Jo Blake has created a fascinating and enlightening stage work which grew from an unusual experience she had in a local churchyard. She says she felt a presence behind her (at which point the cynic in me started to shift anxiously in my seat) like a winged cross, with feathers; it must be an angel, she assumed, which caused her no concern, and she went on her merry way.

JoThis relatively simple experience led her through a journey finding out about Isis – the Egyptian goddess not the Islamist extremists – whom she identified as her angel, and the story about the love between Isis and Osiris, and the wicked Set who destroyed Osiris. Further Googling led her to the existence of the Gospel of Mary, that had been buried in the Egyptian sands for 1,500 years. There are three copies; each has the same missing pages torn out. Now that really is a mystery.

JoMary – a complicated figure in the life of Christ. For centuries denigrated as a prostitute and the target of religious misogyny, it’s no wonder that her account of the last days of Christ was dismissed and ignored, not even making it to the also-rans in the books of the Bible. How could a woman who we feel today only tended to Christ’s physical needs and not his soul possibly have a meaningful story to tell?

Jo and RobJo Blake has spent the last four years assembling that very story, together with her performance partner Robert Clark. She admits early on that neither of them is an actor; she is a storyteller, and he is a dancer. And you can tell that from the whole presentation of the show. Not because of “bad acting” – that’s far from the truth. But there is an informal vibe that you don’t associate with painstakingly following a well-rehearsed script. When we enter the auditorium, Jo and Rob are already on the stage, quietly chatting to each other, relaxed, not in character, acknowledging audience members as they arrive, sometimes talking to them or waving to people they recognise. They introduce themselves to us, they explain their backgrounds and their involvement with the show. There’s no sense of their being a “play”; and there’s never a fourth wall for them to break.

Rob and the TowerJo has truly mastered the art of storytelling; everything is clear, makes sense, and told at a pace that we can easily follow and digest the significance of each stage, before she moves on. A simple set is dominated by a tower in the background, constructed from ladders with strands of red wool cascading from the top. Mary was from a Galilean fishing village, Migdal, whose name means “tower”; so the tower is an appropriate symbol for her. It takes on a more significant meaning later.

RobApart from playing herself, Jo plays Mary; Rob plays everyone else, from Jesus to Peter to Martha to Lazarus. I’m not a religious person, but there’s always a frisson whenever anyone depicts Christ on stage. One of my most memorable theatre moments was a promenade performance of The Passion at the National Theatre in the late 70s when I found myself standing directly between Mark McManus’ Jesus and Jack Shepherd’s Judas, looking furious at each other. There’s a marvellous transition in The Witness when Rob makes towards the tower and starts to climb the ladder, turns to us and just hangs there – and you realise you’ve witnessed Christ being crucified; that red wool is his blood. And all this time Mary is just arguing with him, remonstrating at his selfishness for leaving her behind. Ne me quitte pas goes the music – don’t leave me – and you physically feel the human element of the separation of Christ and Mary. It’s incredibly moving. At first, I flippantly thought we’d suddenly tuned into Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Calvary, until I realised its heartfelt appropriateness.

Jo and RobDo we believe in the Gospel According to Mary? Factually, it exists. And those missing contents from all three extant copies cannot possibly be a coincidence – can it? Peter asks Mary to share the words that the Saviour told only her and that he had told no one else; she tells him that she saw the Lord in a vision and spoke to him about it – but then the narrative breaks off, only to be resumed at a point where she is no longer speaking with the Lord but just explaining the vision. Andrew challenges her, saying her account is incompatible with everything that the Lord had taught; and Peter takes it further – on a personal level: “Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”

Jo and RobAnd that’s the question that Jo poses to us at the end; whom do we believe? Did Mary really win the confidence of Christ sufficiently for him to impart wisdom that he shared with no one else? Is the Gospel of Mary legitimately the only Gospel written by a woman, and is it – to use that old cliché – Gospel Truth? Or did she make it up? I don’t know the answer – but I can make a good guess.

JoHugely thought-provoking and fluidly performed, this was the last of six scheduled shows to be performed locally, but I think this would fit perfectly into any theatre or arts festival – the story of Mary needs to be told!

Production photos by Adam Balcomb

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

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