For Natalia Mallo, it all began on a jet-lagged evening in August 2014, when she had just arrived from Sao Paulo to seek inspiration around the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe for her work as a musician, curator and theatre producer in Brazil. She already had a ticket for an Edinburgh International Festival show that night; but a friend persuaded her to change her plans, and go to St Mark’s Unitarian Church on Castle Terrace, to see the final late-night performance of Jo Clifford’s solo play, The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen Of Heaven. The show is a kind of communion service, in which Clifford – one of Scotland’s leading trans artists, and a playwright who has written more than a hundred performed plays, in a career stretching back to the early 1980s – invites the audience to imagine the message of love at the heart of the Christian faith extending to embrace all those traditionally excluded because of their sexuality or gender, and to imagine Jesus himself – or herself – in the form of a trans woman; and Mallo was enthralled.
“It was such a strange, transforming experience,” she says, from her home in Sao Paulo. “As I entered the place, the person at the door said that while we were waiting, we should talk to someone we didn’t know, and say hello; so before the show even began, I was in this real, human conversation with a man whose son was gay, and had lived in Brazil, and had come along to try and understand more about his son’s life. Then the show began, and even after a few minutes, I found that I was translating it in my head; I had such a strong feeling that I had to translate this play into Portuguese, and I had to take it to Brazil. Afterwards, I talked to Jo, and she gave me a copy of the text, saying, ‘Take it, it’s yours.’ And by the next morning, in my hotel room, I had translated the whole thing.”
That encounter in Edinburgh marked the beginning of a remarkable new stage in the life of Clifford’s play, which had first been seen at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow as part of the Glasgay! festival of 2009. The play’s run at the Tron was marked by headlines in the local press, and nightly protests from traditional Christian groups who regarded the whole idea as an abomination. Yet Clifford concluded that the sheer strength of the response, both negative and positive, suggested that she was on to something; and she finally decided to use her own money to support the show’s 2014 Fringe run, in the hope that it would strike a chord with the international audience gathered in Edinburgh in August.
And her hopes were fulfilled. Within a year of that performance in Edinburgh – and with support from the British Council – Mallo was preparing for the first run in Brazil of the Portuguese version of the show; and Clifford also travelled to Brazil, giving English-language performances of Queen Jesus, as well as workshops and lectures. The show – performed in Portuguese by fabulous trans actor and activist Renata Carvalho – rapidly became a sensation in Brazil, a vital focus for the country’s huge and continuing cultural struggle between progressive and traditional forces, which reached a crisis with last year’s election of the fiercely illiberal right-wing President, Jair Bolsonaro. And the extraordinary history of the play makes it all the more fitting that when The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen of Heaven returns to the Tron next week, for a tenth anniversary celebration, the five-day programme of events will include a performance by Carvalho of that groundbreaking Portuguese version.
The celebration –supported by Creative Scotland and the British Council in Scotland and Brazil, as well as by the Tron Theatre and Outspoken Arts – will also feature three performances by Clifford of the original play, a substantial programme of talks and workshops led by Carvalho, Mallo and others, a Friday-night Queer Cabaret, and the launch of a new book of the play, published by Stewed Rhubarb Press; and Mallo is delighted that she will be back in Scotland for the event.
“Before I saw Jo’s play,” says Mallo, “what drew me to it was not really my concern with inclusion or anything like that, although I was concerned about those things. It was the sheer beauty of the words and performance, and the way it transformed me, so that I felt that I entered as one person, and came out as another. And yes, I knew that the play would possibly be controversial in Brazil. But I couldn’t have imagined the scale of it; how in that political moment, it would become a kind of token for everything that is hated by right-wing traditionalists in the country. Since Bolsonaro was elected, official censorship is being reintroduced; and the last episode of censorship we suffered, at the end of last year, was so violent that we have decided, very sadly, that we can no longer perform Queen Jesus in Brazil for now.
“So it will be wonderful to be in Glasgow, to celebrate the ten years, and to think back over the story of the play. It’s strange: when I first left Argentina, where I grew up, to make a career in Sao Paulo, I felt that it was somehow mysteriously inevitable that I would be in Brazil. And when I first came to Scotland, I felt the same, as if I was bound to have some special relationship with this country. I think it’s my fate; and now here I am, preparing to travel to Scotland again.” Joyce McMillan
The tenth anniversary Queen Jesus mini-season is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from 30 October until 3 November. Full details at www.queenjesusproductions.com.