The Gospel of Mark is an interesting and challenging text to adapt for the stage. It's the earliest gospel, and also the shortest. Composed in Greek, it was based on Aramaic sources and written for a non-Jewish audience. Unlike Hebrew stories such as Job and Ruth, which existed as longstanding oral traditions before they were set to text, the Gospel of Mark is a bone-dry account almost without literary merit.
Nevertheless, it has dramatic potential. It starts in medias res, with Jesus an adult about to start out on his ministry, mercifully leaving out all the nonsense about a virgin birth, gift-bearing kings, or a prophetically-convenient census. It references compelling characters, such as the hermit-like John the Baptist, and lays out the classic tale of a lone figure struggling against authority. And it offers us tantalising hints and insights into how a first century Jew, a carpenter by the name of Yeshua ben Yosef, came to be Jesus Christ, the most widely worshipped figure on earth.
The Mark Drama, unfortunately, is largely uninterested in this potential. At the beginning, an apology was made for the actors, who were all amateur performers. It was unnecessary. The performances were fine. Apologies should have been made for the uninspired direction, the terribly anachronistic ad-libs, the unimaginative script, or the lack of any attempt to challenge a Sunday-school understanding of this figure.
If you have been to mass any number of times you have seen this type of performance before. Bible passages are read aloud while the more enthusiastic church-goers, usually the younger ones, do a little pantomime to them. Picture that, but slightly warmed over – the characters actually say their lines, but not much else is improved.
There were some flourishes. The play is performed as theatre-in-the-round, and the performers used this set-up to its fullest potential. The story about Jesus being at sea with his disciples, in the midst of a storm, is wonderfully immersive. The analogy of the woman with seven husbands, all brothers, is genuinely funny. The crucifixion scene was forceful and confronting. But the rest of it? Oh my.
The apostles cluster around Jesus in an animated gaggle, excitedly whispering to each other as he heals the sick or casts out demons. ("Oh my gosh! She's healed! Jesus is amazing!") One actor fist-pumped when Jesus re-christened him 'Peter'. Another actor walked on stage and announced himself, to no one in particular, as a Sadducee. A third reacts to being healed of his deafness with mild surprise. First century Jews apparently had the emotional range of toddlers, and no internal monologues.
The Mark Drama promises a dramatic retelling of Jesus' ministry, but under-delivers with mildly colourful pantomime. Christians searching for a comfortable dramatisation of the gospel might appreciate this play, but they won't get much out of it. There's little here to challenge mainstream theistic notions of the man or provoke spiritual reflection. For everyone else, it will serve as a reminder of why The Life of Brian worked so well as a parody.