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by Anthony Neilson

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Tebut Isfar

ta ' Clare Azzopardi















AUTHOR: Howard Brenton

VENUE: St James Cavalier

DATES: 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25 February 2007

EXTRA: 02, 03, 04 March 2007

DIRECTOR: Chris Gatt

CAST: Manuel Cauchi, Kevin Drake, Paul Portelli, Stefan Cachia Zammit,Victor Debono, Mario Spiteri, Christian Micallef, Mariano Said,Maria Buckle


"So what does Showtime think were the three outstanding local productions of the 2006/2007 season? In no particular order: Masquerade's The Goat, Unifaun's Some Explicit Polaroids and Curtain Call's Boston Marriage. Stellar performances of the season came from Nanette Brimmer, Monica Attard and Rachel Darmanin Demajo in Boston Marriage, Isabel Warrington in The Goat and a special mention for Coryse Borg, who was absolutely amazing in Some Explicit Polaroids. As for male actors, there was Manuel Cauchi (naturally) both in The Goat and Paul, Kevin Drake and Stefan Cachia Zammit in Paul and Mikhail Basmadjan in Company." - Showtime, 1 June 2007


Provocative theatre

Unifaun Theatre Company, with the energy of Adrian Buckle and his team behind it, continues to provide us with challenging scripts and new and engaging productions. Their latest offering at St James Theatre was Howard Brenton’s controversial Paul, which explores the phenomenon of faith and provides audiences with an unflinching look at the life of St Paul. It was produced by Chris Gatt. Marie Benot asked a handful of those who went to watch it for a brief comment


The premise of this play is that the most well-known conversion in biblical history when Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus was actually a trick, and therefore all of Christianity is founded on a lie. I have no doubt that a number of people, some without even having watched the play, are reaching for their pen or keyboard to write a letter to the editor to complain about the subject matter of this play, using words such as “profane” and “blasphemous”. To be honest, before I watched the play last Saturday, I was expecting to be really shocked by Paul. However, although the subject itself may cause ripples, the theatrical production as produced by Unifaun, is nothing more than a well-written, well-acted, fictional piece which makes one think about it long after one has left the theatre. With a running time of nearly two hours, the play does sometimes get a little too heavy, however, there is thankfully an injection of humour courtesy of a short scene towards the end of the play, excellently acted I thought by Manuel Cauchi, Kevin Drake and, especially, Paul Portelli.


We were on holiday from England and since we love theatre we went to see Paul at St James Cavalier Theatre in the round.It was an excellent play and we would like to congratulate the producer and all the cast for a superb play and a special “well done” to Manuel Cauchi for the way he played Paul.


I’m an atheist, not agnostic, no half-baked libertine or a teenager looking for a cause. I’m 37 years old and 20 years ago I came to the conclusion that I don’t want to believe in fairy tales. Yet I want to thank my Catholic upbringing, with great role models that gave me a sense of belonging, of community.I liked Paul, because it goes through an atheist’s travail: being sucked out of a community of faith by reason and trying to find a sense to life. I, like Brenton’s Paul, found solace in family and friends, in belonging to others, the sharing or the agape of early Christians. The play explores another possible interpretation of Paul’s life and I hope it would start engaging discussions between believers and atheists. I have a strong feeling that Brenton wants to portray the harassment received by the early Christians to the visceral distrust believers pour on atheists in general. A University of Minnesota survey found that atheists are distrusted more than Muslims and are a contributing factor to moral and cultural decline of America. I’m sure that the next news story will be that atheists eat children


A great and intense play with enormous entertainment value, if one were to watch it with an open mind and maturity. Like the Da Vinci Code, it opens new frontiers of possibilities in our religious beliefs, but then why not? Unifaun Theatre has offered the mature and intellectual public a choice of great plays, of wit, of ingenuous playwrights and of outstanding performances.Manuel Cauchi, in the title role was the tour de force of the play and he carried it with immense mastery of the tormented, sensitive and yet suffering Paul. This is, I believe, one of Manuel’s outstanding interpretations. I also enjoyed the performances of Kevin Drake and Paul Portelli’s last character: that of the powerful and creative gay. Great part and it takes guts to play a role like that, as in the case of Kevin Drake’s role, too.Chris Gatt whose name is synonymous with good theatre, once again handled a delicate play with regard to detail. And lastly my congratulations to Adrian Buckle, the producer, for his choice of plays. Give us more, Adrian.


Since we are living in the “Post-Da Vinci Code era” I can’t say that I found this play too shocking. Which is, I guess, just as well because rather than getting all consumed by the controversy of the themes portrayed I could focus my energy on the way in which the play was presented.I enjoyed seeing the clever way in which the author adapted the biblical events in such a way that make you question whether they did happen in the way Howard Breton depicted them rather than the way Bible does: “Could it really have happened that way rather than the way we have been fed for the past two millennia?”I think that we have reached a stage where we should move away from focusing on the trivial details about the life of Jesus such as whether he was married or not and more on his message. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the play was presented in flashbacks. This helped to concentrate more on what was going on. It was a long play. Almost two hours long with no break. I also liked the fact that the actors were dressed in clothes of today. This helped me associate how events that happened such a long time ago are still relevant today.I admire a company like Unifaun for putting up controversial theatre. We need gutsy people like them to wake us up from our stupor and to challenge us to think.


Paul Plus

Unifaun’s production of Howard Brenton’s wonderfully contentious drama Paul goes into its third weekend at the theatre-in-the-round at St James this weekend, tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, each night at 8 p.m. And if you thought Unifaun’s Some Explicit Polaroid’s was steamy, this one will blow the top of your head off.Paul is bound to challenge a few accepted Christian principles and “truths” and for those whose faith is wavering, this may be way too strong. But happily these days most Maltese audiences are much more mature and able to disseminate fact from speculation.But there is no denying that this is strong stuff and requires an audience that can treat it on its merits.It certainly has an A list cast: The eponymous Paul is played by Manuel Cauchi, Peter by Kevin Drake, Jeshua by Paul Portelli and Mary Magdalene by Maria Buckle. If you read The Da Vinci Code and were appalled, then it would be better to give Paul a miss. But if you are looking for challenging, intelligent theatre then you could do worse than catch this one.This is your last chance to do just that.


Paul the Man

The country has grown up. I’ve been seeing signs of this for quite a few years, but last Friday, it was proved to me.We went to Paul, the play that’s on at St James - if you can get your hands on tickets for tonight or tomorrow, you should trot along, it’s worth it. If I were in a nit-picking mood, I’d have a bit of a whinge about a couple of peculiar accents that surfaced from the minor players, but, hey, that’s just nit-picking.The production is intelligent, the play itself quite involving and the lead guys do a fine job, flashing the action backwards and forwards through the trials and tribulations of Paul the Apostle, a man sustained up by his convictions at the same time as his cohorts are wracked by the doubts instilled by the fact that they know that the whole Jesus story is something of a mis-interpretation that’s run away from their control because of obsessives like Paul.Only a few years ago, we’d have been assaulted from all sides by fine upstanding citizens bent on defending the Faith from the insidious attacks of the intellectuals. They’re the people who bullied the people putting on The Duchess Of Malfi a few years ago into taking out a bit where the crucifix was kicked across the stage, just in case you need reminding what I’m on about.They’re the ones whose own faith must be so fragile they can’t even begin to contemplate that, just maybe, the world wasn’t created in a flash and a pop and that Adam isn’t, actually, missing a rib because Eve was grown out of it.We still have people like this around, of course, but sometimes they miss out on the chance to demonstrate their fundamentalism on a play like Paul. Perhaps it’s because they’re busy falling for those e-mail hoaxes about movies that portray Christ as Mary Magdalene’s husband (come to think about it, that’s a central theme to Paul) or because they’re trying to get the Constitution amended to prohibit the killing of the unborn child, blithely ignoring the fact that this is a redundant exercise, as anyone without blinkers knows.Oh, well, whatever the reason, I suppose we should be thankful that the bigots were distracted, because it meant we got to watch a play that is not a Whitehall farce or a musical, worthy of our attention as these two genres are themselves.

- I.M. BECK -THE TIMES, 03/03/07

Until Darkness Falls

The advance publicity for Howard Brenton’s PAUL (Unifaun at StJames Cavalier) played down somewhat the play’s explosive nature. Like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, it strikes at the very root of Christianity, but whereas that was a cheap novel that few sensible readers took really seriously, Brenton’s play is more intelligent and less wild in its fantasising, and thus more dangerous to the believer.Paul is the Apostle Paul, the remarkable man whose tireless, courageous missionary work in the Eastern Mediterranean and magnificent exposition of, and additions to, Jesus Christ’s teaching, was very largely responsible for Christianity’s developing early on into a religion not just for the Jews but for all men. He it was who preached and wrote that, had Christ not risen from the dead, all that his followers believed would have been in vain. Brenton, who seems to admire some aspects of Christian belief but has no time for its supernatural underpinning, has built his play on a reconstruction of early Christianity meant to demonstrate that Christ (or Jeshua, the Jewish name later latinised into Jesus) never died on the cross but lived on in hiding for a number of years in such poor health that he was unable to further his preaching mission.The one important thing he does in the play is to waylay Saul (Paul’s original name) on his way to Damascus and to convince him not only to stop his persecution of Christ’s followers but also to believe in Christ’s divinity as well as in his teaching.To make the conversion dramatically acceptable, Brenton depicts Saul/Paul as an epileptic who meets Christ during a fit that invests the meeting with a seemingly supernatural light and makes Christ’s words sound much more meaningful than they are in fact. Renamed Paul by Christ and struck temporarily blind, he goes on to Damascus, is baptised into the new faith, and goes into the Arabian desert to prepare himself for his great, self-appointed mission. We see Jeshua again a few times, but he has now become a member of the supporting cast, the principal being Paul. He does, it is true, at one point advise the new leaders of the faith, his brother James and Simon Peter, to authorise Paul to go off on his missionary travels, but he is a broken man who has also the handicap of having married Mary Magdalene before his crucifixion. Mary (Maria Buckle not quite in the part, but a promising actress) has been a tart, and she still speaks like one, but she is no tart with a golden heart, but a mean-spirited woman who has no high opinion of Jeshua and scorns his parents: thankfully, the text used in this production omits a couple of very undignified words the Magdalene uses about Mary, Jeshua’s mother. In fact, the last scene in which Jeshua and the Magdalene appear is largely unessential for the play’s development, and presents us with the despicable couple trying to envisage how history will depict them. Jeshua says: “We’ll disappear into the stories they’ll tell about us very beautiful lies. So beautiful in a way they’ll be true.” It is pathetic to hear someone who, at worst, is regarded as one of the great religious leaders the world has produced, cheer himself with the thought that all his life will become a pure (but pretty) fabrication in the minds of men, while the Magdalene speaks of the tattoos on her buttocks as she speculates that history will never accept her as Jeshua’s wife.The play is structured skilfully into scenes in a Rome dungeon where Paul, later joined by Peter, awaits his execution, and a whole series of flashbacks in which Paul’s history from his conversion to his wonderful sermon to the Corinthians (pinched, of course, from the canonical Letter to the Corinthians) a scene that also marks his desertion by his hitherto faithful lieutenant Barnabas. Paul’s marvellous faith in Jeshua and in his own teaching are contrasted again and again with the shiftiness and lack of faith of James and Peter. What Brenton does not do convincingly is to show us why Peter who, though fully aware that the Master has survived his crucifixion, finally agrees to accompany Paul in his preaching of the Risen Christ. Chris Gatt’s subtle direction tries to make up for the author’s failing by making Peter, played with psychological richness by Kevin Drake, as a man who has never stopped chopping and changing from the way the Gospels depict him, a good man who has nothing of the intellectual about him. Not wonder Paul says that if Peter is Jeshua’s rock, he is a slippery one Drake’s Peter is a blunt man, infuriated by intellectual niceties. He is clumsy and rarely in a good temper, but I thought there were a few lines where he got laughs that he could have avoided. It is true, however, that some members of the audience were ready to guffaw at the slightest excuse. Brenton’s Peter knows Jeshua never rose from the dead, so why does he die with Paul for that truth? Brenton does this in purely theatrical terms by having Paul and Peter, the night before their execution, after a long scene in which Paul finally hears all the truth from Peter and teeters on the edge of disbelief in all he has done, receive a visit from the Emperor Nero himself. Brenton specifies that Nero wears a mask of a woman’s face, but Gatt goes beyond this by making Nero into a queen in a flowing woman’s dress, speaking and walking mincingly. He is played beautifully by Paul Portelli (who also plays a weary and tortured Jeshua, with a bald head, that goes bravely against the iconography, in this production) as a failed artist who consoles himself by acting in his own plays.What he does is to continue to undermine the faith of Paul, who however continues to cling to it desperately but at the same time to create a new courage in the terrified Peter who is stung by Nero’s contempt into defiantly declaring that he too believes in the Risen Christ. It is good theatre, but it shows us Christ’s appointed first leader of theChurch dying consciously for a lie.It reduces the play’s ending to sheer melodrama as the two men chant “Christ is risen” again and again and again, till darkness falls.Manuel Cauchi has rarely done anything as fine as this Paul; his Lear probably came close to this. It is a dauntingly long part that requires an actor to use all his technical baggage, not least his voice, and only someone with Cauchi’s long experience in the great dramatic roles and with his ability to portray a range of strong emotions can handle it. This Paul is a man whose mission gives him great psychological strength but who also has a thorn (mentioned in one of the Letters) that pains him from time to time, a thorn interpreted by Brenton, following some scholars, as epilepsy. His long first scene with Jeshua, with the bright light of the aura shining out from under his feet, lays the foundation for the whole performance.The doubts about traditional Judaism barely visible even in the scene before Jeshua’s entrance, now bloom, and the persecutor becomes an ardent believer. Cauchi plays the scene in the desert with a mixture of fanatical belief and down-to earth Jewish humour, and it is in the scene in Jerusalem with James (Victor Debono giving a performance that is not entirely focused) that he first lets rip vocally, perhaps a little too much in this small theatre. He reaches a peak in the scene in Corinth, a scene directed with much perception by Gatt, even if one or two of the minor actors slightly diminish its strength. Cauchi’s delivery of the great passage about love as the whole basis of Christianity is thrilling, and when, immediately after, he bids a last farewell to his old mate Barnabas (played with restraint but effectively by Stefan Cachia Zammit) with a sad smile, the moment is very moving.His scenes with Peter in the dungeon show him pitting his faith against Peter’s impatient disbelief, as the dialogue pinpoints the difference between the two men’s interpretation of truth. Quite unforgettable is the scene where Paul’s faith begins to crumble. He pants, sits down because his legs will not keep him up any more, and with difficulty brings out the words: “Is the world tilting sideways?” and then, a minute or two later, we see him fighting back to believe what he desperately needs to believe. The production is played without break, as Brenton directs, but unlike what the National Theatre in London did, Gatt has made sure that the scenes follow each other, melt into each other effortlessly, and close on two hours speed past. Like the National Theatre, he has opted for contemporary dress, and this works. It is a strong production that will have both believers and unbelievers agonising long after they have seen it.


Debatable history and indisputable Faith

What happens when an atheist writes a play about the apostle Paul? Does he try to destroy the Jesus story? Does he try to substitute the most mundane of explanations to what we consider to be mysteries of Faith? Howard Brenton did both these things and more in his controversial play “Paul”. The strange thing was that I came away feeling uncharacteristically moved, subdued and very pensive. Although the play leaves you in no doubt that Brenton thinks the whole Jesus story was a sham that was actually perpetuated by Paul after the equally sham conversion on the road to Damascus, the deep and uncompromising faith and the writings of the apostle Paul that are quoted throughout the play as in the very emotionally moving sermon about Love that took place in Corinth, convinces you that even if the Brenton version happened to be right, the cult founded by St Paul would have been necessary to have been invented. As Brenton himself says in his introduction, Paul ‘was profoundly wrong but also mysteriously right.’One realises more than ever what a colossally huge influence this former Pharisee and citizen of Rome had on the history of Christianity and the world. Had St Paul not existed, Christianity would have remained yet another Jewish sect like the Sadducees and the Essenes. The apostles were not terribly keen on converting gentiles, in fact the pre-Pauline church insisted on circumcision before baptism; something that Paul fought tooth and nail against. “My brother’s message was for Jews” declares James played very intensely by Victor Debono. It is through the journeys of St Paul that Christianity was brought to us in Malta in AD60. St Paul is therefore one of those ‘ifs’ which our subsequent world history could have been radically different.What I thought was over the top was the constant hype this play was given in the media by way of PR. Post Da Vinci Code we are fed up to the teeth of being told about further shocking ‘historical’ revelations. Too much of the plot was given before one actually saw the play. In fact most of the time it was all too predictable. The play itself can easily stand on its own without being ‘sold’ as yet another ‘shocker’ which was not shocking at all. Let’s hope that the same will not happen when Unifaun regale us with their next production, Peter Schaffer’s Equus. Coincidentally, this production that started on the 16th February at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End has had lots of international publicity as the actor taking the part of Alan Strang is no other than Daniel Radcliffe or as he is better known, Harry Potter!  Whenever I have been asked about books that attempt to disprove the Jesus story as bunkum, I have always replied that while history is debatable, faith is indisputable. I will not go into the details of Brenton’s historical theories for I am not writing for those who did not see the play but writing this as a discussion board for those who did. We have had so many onslaughts on our Faith that yet another is neither here nor there. What is more important about Brenton’s play is that the Roman Catholic religion really does owe its very existence to Paul alone; whether it was all a figment of his epileptic visions is another question that we will never be able to answer.Manuel Cauchi’s Paul was his greatest and most taxing role yet. It is tremendously intense. The single-mindedness of Brenton’s Paul was beautifully brought out. Cauchi literally became Paul. I will not forget that superb scene with Paul Portelli’s ethereal Jesus during the conversion scene in a hurry; nor will I forget the meeting with Stefan Cachia Zammit’s splendidly played Barnabas in the Arabian Desert and the words of consecration. I could not help being amused by Paul’s total bewilderment when confronted by Mary (Magdalene?) as Jesus’ wife played very shrewishly by Maria Buckle. One immediately recalled the apostle’s well-known chauvinism. He was quite prepared to revere her as a living saint but simply could not cope with her earthiness. The imprisonment scenes with Kevin Drake’s well-cast Peter, in which the entire story is reenacted like the dnouement Agatha Christie novel, giving alternative explanations to the story as we believed it, were very strong and held the play together like a recurrent leitmotif. The lynchpin of the entire play is Paul; his emotions, his drive, his moral strength, his stubbornness, his bravery and even his humanity, all brought out with the craft of a master by Manuel Cauchi.The final scene with Paul Portelli, this time playing a very degenerate but prophetic Emperor Nero who visited Peter and Paul in prison the night before their execution was a superb bit of climactic theatre. Ironic that the man who played Jesus the Son of God who was supposed to have died and rose again also played the deified Nero in his female role of Selene goddess of the moon. The uncanny predictions all made with the benefit of hindsight assured Paul that he was not giving up his life for nothing and convinced Peter that the lie was worth preserving after all to the extent that it was then that he decided to be crucified upside down as a tribute to what amounted to a fictional character of Paul’s fevered imagination; Jesus Christ!

I always enjoy Chris Gatt’s direction as it is always bold and uninhibited. I always enjoy the unfussiness of productions at St James where we are irresistibly drawn into the action and the prose of the play without visual distractions. I admire the tenacity of Unifaun Theatre to stick to its guns and put up theatre productions that make one think. When one attends a play like Paul, one cannot help reflecting upon it and discussing it. As Adrian Buckle pointed out in his introduction “Some have criticized us saying that people who do not have strong beliefs will be misled by this play. I believe that such people would have lost their faith anyway, because they have never been encouraged to understand; because they have always been told to accept.”


On the voyage to DamascusThe Apparition

BaptismMaria Buckle as Mary Magdalene confronts Manuel Cauchi as Paul

The GentilesPraying


Jeshua and Magdalene: Husband and WifeCaesar

pictures by Joseph A. Borg