Bigger Than Jesus by Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks. WYRD Productions, Canada, presented by Sydney Festival and Sydney Theatre Company. Performed by Rick Miller at Wharf 1, January 18-29 2011.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
As a confirmed atheist, I think the god-botherers who were demonstrating outside the theatre when I arrived have nothing to fear from Rick Miller. For me, however, his attempt to enlighten us about the truth of the Jesus story is disappointingly shallow. The show is a great example of how cleverly devised theatre and skilful performance can impress and excite positive responses from an audience, even though the material is inconsistently developed. I heard Canadian accents in the audience on opening night. Maybe the most enthusiastic applause contained some degree of cultural bias.
Theatrically, the way Miller and Brooks (as director) incorporated live video, pre-recorded screen images, recorded sound, live amplification and unamplified voice was especially inviting. Perhaps the most original device was to use three cameras set up in what looked like a laptop (really a box of props). Miller could present himself as one character on screen front-on when facing the centre camera, talking to a different character when he turned slightly side-on towards another camera, while what we saw was both ends of a Skype session in real time. Another very funny sequence was his presentation of the Last Supper, videoed live as Miller manipulated models of the characters. It was like watching the makers of Wallace and Gromit at work and seeing the end result on screen at the same time.
Miller’s voice and movement work was also highly expert, enabling him to play a considerable array of characters from an unassuming Jesus according to John’s Gospel, a fascinating post-modern hot-gospeller (probably as mad as the John who wrote Revelations), through to singing the sentimental Jesus we know so well from Jesus Christ Superstar. Seen from this point of view, Bigger Than Jesus, including the reference to John Lennon – another charismatic John – was consistently entertaining.
But I came away dissatisfied because Miller himself, or at least Miller in his role of Jesus watching all that has been done “in my name” since his birth in the year 4 Before Christ and the writing of the gospels by biassed supporters “between 40 to 60 years” after he died, appears to present Christ as if he is still around today. As an atheist humanist I have no problem with agreeing with the message that we should love one another and behave towards others as we would wish them to behave towards us. But Miller’s ending takes us back to the Catholic mass and the Eucharist ceremony with such feeling that I could not escape the idea that I was meant to put aside all the critical commentary in favour of simple faith in Christ and his message, as if this will carry the day.
I felt cheated because the work began by seriously criticising the likelihood of the Jesus story ever having happened in reality, setting us up for an argument which was never properly followed through. It was as if Miller and Brooks had never understood George Bernard Shaw, whose St Joan proved that an atheist can appreciate the value of genuine religious belief. Bigger Than Jesus is a philosophical mess in comparison.
Interestingly, since the placards of invocations against the Sydney Theatre Company for presenting this work of the devil had gone from Hickson Road when I left the Wharf after an hour and a half, I can only assume those so bothered had either found out the truth about the ending, or, being post-modern themselves, had given up trying to insist on the absolute truth of anything any more.