When Jo Clifford’s The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen Of Heaven opens at the Traverse Theatre later this month, it will mark the latest stage in one of the most remarkable journeys in recent Scottish theatre. Since the success of her autobiographical show Eve, first staged by the National Theatre of Scotland during the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Jo Clifford’s own story is now well known to Scottish theatregoers; how she began her writing career back in the 1980s as John Clifford, with Traverse hits such as Losing Venice and Ines De Castro, then entered a long period of personal and professional struggle, before deciding – after the death of her wife Sue Innes, in 2005 – that she could simply no longer live as a man.
In the last dozen years, Jo has seen huge interest in her work, in Scotland and elsewhere; but of all her recent projects, the one that has changed her life most profoundly is a quiet one-hour monologue that first appeared in Glasgow in 2009, with the help of a £2,000 grant from the city’s now largely defunct Glasgay! festival. The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen Of Heaven, usually performed by Clifford herself, is a kind of communion service which imagines that Jesus might have been not a man, but a trans woman; and although it is the gentlest of shows, driven by Christian values of love, tolerance, and reverence for creation, it has outraged those who take a traditional patriarchal view of Christianity.
“I was really taken aback by the reaction to Jesus Queen of Heaven,” says Clifford, “because a few years earlier I had written a much angrier and possibly more ‘blasphemous’ play about gender and religion called God’s New Frock, and no-one seemed to bat an eyelid.
“After that, I began to read the New Testament, and found myself increasingly moved by the way Jesus embraced all kinds of social outcasts. I felt increasingly sure that he would also have embraced trans people; and for me, it became a way back towards the strong Christian faith I now have.
“When Jesus Queen of Heaven opened at the Tron in 2009, though, there was a big demonstration outside every night of the run, with traditional Christians holding a vigil and singing hymns, and placards denouncing the play. It was all over the popular papers, it was denounced by the Archbishop of Glasgow, and I received a lot of hateful messages, as well as some wonderful support.
“And the impact on me was to make me think, ‘Well, I must be on to something.’ So I stuck with the project, largely using my own money; and in 2014 we staged the show at St Mark’s, during the Fringe. At the end of the run, a wonderful Brazilian woman called Natalia Mallo came to see it, and said right away that she would translate it into Portuguese, so that it could be seen in Brazil.
“She translated it in a single night, we took it to Belo Horizonte in 2016 to massive positive media coverage, and her theatre company began to look for a Brazilian actress who could perform the show all over the country. They found the amazing Renata Carvalho, a trans woman with an astonishing life story; and as the show began to appear across Brazil, it became a real phenomenon.”
Over the last two years, the Brazilian production has become the subject of fierce battles, as local mayors and public authorities have tried to ban it. Brazil’s new right-wing president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, denounced it on Twitter; and Clifford is now writing a radio play about the extraordinary events in the city of Garanhuns earlier this year, when police arrived and officials started to dismantle the performance around the company – who then led their hundreds-strong audience to an outdoor site nearby, to complete the show in pouring rain.
“I think the reason Jesus Queen Of Heaven has struck such a chord in Brazil is because it’s a country with such a strong tradition of machismo, and that produces resistance. Brazil has the highest murder rate for gay and trans people in the world, but it also has one of the richest and most amazing transsexual cultures. And then there’s the role of religion – both the Catholic Church and the US-style right-wing evangelism with which Bolsonaro allies himself – in trying to impose very strict sexual norms.
“So all of these factors make the play a rallying point not only for LGBT people, but for everyone who rebels against traditional patriarchal authoritarianism. And I’m very worried about the safety of my friends and colleagues in Brazil now, once Bolsonaro empowers the police to do pretty much as they please, as he has said he will.”
Clifford is also conscious of the backlash against trans rights here at home, where feminist groups are now joining gender traditionalists in arguing against the right of trans people to self-define their gender without going through the current lengthy official process.
“Well of course, it’s very hurtful to hear some people arguing that someone who was born physically male can never be a woman, and should not be allowed to claim a place among women; that is hard. And it is characteristic of dark political times that it’s in some people’s interest to set traditionally oppressed groups against each other.
“But it seems obvious to me that women and transgender people are on the same side, in the struggle against the traditional patriarchal system embraced by leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro. We need to recognise how much we all stand to lose, with the emergence of a new wave of authoritarian leaders across the world; and we need to work together to resist that, with all our strength.” - Joyce McMillan
The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen of Heaven is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 13-22 December.