Theatre review: The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven

A transgender Jesus and a queer retelling of the New Testament makes for a provocative production.

Is there room for ritual in our secular age? Jesus, Queen of Heaven says yes. 

For those of us who wonder if our hearts, ageing and weary, are now just too hardened by life and love to feel things – for those of us Christians who threw out religion long ago because of the long history of prejudice and systemic abuse in the institution that we could no longer face – go and see The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven. 

As Jesus is recast as a trans woman, and stories from the New Testament are retold, queered – this production is salvation, wrought in theatrical form – a balm for the ritual-starved, a ceremony of absolution, a celebration of humanity in all its dirty and messy beauty. 

After winning the 2021 Green Room Award for Best Independent Theatre Production for its premiere season at Theatre Works, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven returns in this restaging directed by Kitan Petkovski, at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs.

In this production, the ritualistic elements of Jo Clifford’s text are heightened, the cadence of the 55-minute show elevated, with a four-person choir singing throughout. The music, brilliantly composed by Rachel Lewindon and expertly sung by the choir, is more than simply accompaniment. It is a vital element of the whole theatrical – and, yes, spiritual – experience. 

Led gently, safely, with love, by Melbourne-based performer Kristen Smyth, Jesus Queen of Heaven is a humanistic, life- and soul-affirming retelling of various stories from the Christian New Testament Gospels.

The Good Samaritan becomes the Good Queen, drunken and bleary-eyed, on her way home from The Greyhound after a big night, who stops on St Kilda’s Grey Street to help a comatose sex worker on the side of the road, after she was left by a judgemental bishop and a work-deadened cop.

The Prodigal Son becomes the Prodigal Son-turned-Daughter. Rejected by her father (as he is unwilling to accept her gender), the Prodigal Daughter is sent out into the world – only to be rejected by the world. On returning home, the Daughter is welcomed back with open arms – ‘She who was lost, is now found. She who was dead, has come to life.’ It’s real tear-jerker stuff, that gains much in a queer retelling. 

Smyth’s performance is enthralling. In blue cape, sparkly gown and bare feet, she invites us in, conspiratorially – her whispered asides, her tilt of the head as she jokes with us, all has the effect of creating a Jesus who we can’t help but edge toward. We want to sit closer to her, this arch-storyteller.  

The open cavernous underground space of fortyfivedownstairs is transformed into a four-sided theatre-in-the-round – enabling the audience to be close to the performance while invoking the shape of a cathedral, a reference strengthened by the large wooden cross in the corner. The sense of institutional gravitas is softened by the stage being made entirely of real grass. We as audience sit, looking across from each other, in communion, as Jesus walks barefoot across the earth rectangle of the stage, telling her stories.

Read: Theatre review: Symphonie de la Bicyclette, Brink Productions

While some familiarity with the Gospel stories of the New Testament may give audiences added satisfaction in recognising them retold in this production – it doesn’t require it. The strength of this work is in its harnessing of all the powerful elements of a religious experience to create a new, pro-human, sex-positive, inclusive ritual, celebrating queerness – the Golden Rule-based philosophy of the New Testament shining afresh. 

Jesus, who was a friend to those her society cast out – the tax collectors, lepers and sex workers – I’m certain she would approve. 

The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven
Forty-Five Downstairs
Director: Kitan Petkovski
Performer: Kristen Smyth
Composer: Rachel Lewindon
Set and Costume Designer: Bethany J Fellows
Lighting Designer: Katie Sfetkidis
Producer: Ben Anderson
Choir: Alexandra Amerides, Mel O’Brien, Andre Sasalu and Willow Sizer

The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven will be performed until 29 January.

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen