Gay Jesus play stirs violent passions

A play opening in Auckland next week that portrays Jesus as a gay man mocked as "king of the queers" has sparked bomb threats and violent protests in the United States and a Muslim-declared fatwa against the playwright in Britain.

Corpus Christi, set in contemporary Texas and written by American Terence McNally, includes a Nativity performed in a seedy hotel, an HIV-positive male hustler who represents the character of Mary Magdalene, and two disciples married by Jesus.

It opens at Auckland University's Maidment Theatre Studio on Wednesday.

Director Lex Matheson said he had received daily calls from people concerned about the play's depiction of Christ and his disciples as gay.

"They haven't been abusive but they wanted to get into a debate.

"I had an extraordinary call from a fellow who asked if there was new evidence - he thought this was the latest version of the Turin Shroud.

"And there have been two calls from people who've obviously been shocked that a theatre associated with the university would take on something like this."

Despite the violent reaction against Corpus Christi in the US and Britain, the play has received support from some religious leaders. When it was staged in Edinburgh in 1999, the city's bishop, Richard Holloway, said: "I was in tears. It was the most remarkable and powerful passion play I have ever seen."

Bishop Richard Randerson, Dean of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell, said he would see Corpus Christi.

"It's hard to make a comment without having seen it, but I would say there is no evidence to suggest Christ was gay. I wouldn't think anyone in the Church would support that thesis and certainly I do not.

"However, there is no doubt that Christ's love extended to all people regardless of race or orientation or gender. If the point of the play is to emphasise the universality of Christ's love for all people, then I would say that's a very Christian message."

Matheson, who has worked in theatre and television as an actor and director for 30 years, said he converted to Catholicism recently after a year of classes.

He says the play has a deeply spiritual message.

"We believe in the New Testament and the Christian message of love your neighbour as you would love yourself. If you wanted to stage this simply to offend people, I can't think of a more nihilistic or meaningless experience for the director, the actors or the audience.

"There will be people who will be distressed by this ...

"I'm aware this is controversial. Jesus is queer, the disciples are queer - unashamedly so. Consequently the things represented in the play are gay things.

"Is Jesus celibate? Well, no, he's not in this play."

Tony Franklin, board chairman of the Auckland Community Church, which is gay-friendly, said: "As long as the portrayal of Jesus and his message was positive, I have no problem with it".