Interview: Arrows & Traps, The Gospel According to Philip

“It’s a modern Life Of Brian, but with sharper knives,” explains Ross McGregor, Director of Arrows & Traps. Following their recent critically acclaimed production of Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio, the company are turning their attention to something very different for their next project.

“The Gospel According To Philip is the story of a young man, Philip, who decides to join the Apostles, a secret club of men, and follow a new messiah called Jesus. The story is told from his perspective as it charts Jesus’s final weeks on earth, running to his crucifixion.”

The production began with an approach from one of the writers, Richard Melchior. “I’ve known Richard for about 10 years; we worked together early in our careers doing regional tours in East Anglia. He brought this script to me just after his co-writer, Heidi Svoboda, tragically passed away, and asked me if there was any way to get this performed, as he was really proud of it. Initially I was just interested in it from a personal level, as I’ve always been a fan of Richard’s work, but when I started to actually read it, I was blown away. The satire is wonderfully drawn and subtle enough to make you think, and these iconic, almost mythical people are so recognisable but also feel completely fresh.

“You have the different character dynamics at work in terms of the apostles, and what Richard and Heidi have done, in a stroke of genius, is to transform Jesus and his disciples into a weary primary school teacher trope trying to control a group of unruly children, which gives it so much life. You have Peter as the teacher’s pet, the smart alec filled with impossible questions in Matthew, Judas as the cool kid smoking at the back of the classroom, the remedial dunce in James, the closeted gay man in Paul, and Philip as the new kid at school. It’s a fantastic re-imagining of how the Bible should have gone.

“I was so impressed with the quality of the writing and the machine-gun-like frequency of the punchlines. It’s one of the best comedies I’ve read in quite a while – but then when the ending comes, the poignancy and sense of loss is devastating. When I realised this ending reflected Richard’s loss of Heidi after she died, and that this might be the only chance of her work being performed now – I knew I had to take it on myself.”

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Offie-nominated Arrows & Traps are known for their productions of classics, particularly Shakespeare, so the new show marks quite a departure from tradition. “This isn’t an Arrows show in the expected sense – it isn’t Shakespeare, there are no extended movement pieces, we’re not subverting a classic or switching genders – but hopefully we will retain enough of what has made the last six shows so successful and bring you a recognisable Arrows-shaped piece of entertainment – which I think means that I want to take characters that you think you know, and show you their humanity and vulnerability in a new way, whilst entertaining you senseless.

“In Arrows shows we normally try to take an old story and tell it in a new way, but with this, that exact action has already been performed by the writers before we got our hands on it. They took the Bible, spun it on its head and created The Gospel According To Philip. So the Arrows spin is done without an Arrow having to lift a finger. All we have to do now is bring it to life in the most fair and honest way possible. And make sure it’s funny, of course. Has to be funny.”

Staging a piece of new writing for the first time brings with it a new kind of pressure: “I’m wary of doing this one justice, as it’s the first time the script has ever been performed, and whilst we don’t have the shadows of hundreds of other past productions looming over us like we usually do with Shakespeare, this one seems even more important to get right because I really want this little show to have a great future, and go from strength to strength in years to come, whatever shape that might take. It’s a great piece, and deserves a long life.

“On the other hand, there might be less pressure in terms of reviews and audiences, because with Shakespeare that’s always massive. On our last show, Macbeth, the vision and direction that the witches would take absolutely plagued me in the preparation stages, because they’re so iconic, everyone has their version of what they should be like… it was very hard to try to honour those views, honour the world of our play, serve the narratives that the text has, and also show something new with them. Lots of pressure. So Philip doesn’t have that. Or perhaps it does! I mean, doesn’t everyone kind of have a preconceived notion of what Jesus looks like? In the west, he’s a Brad Pitt-esque, blue-eyed, golden-haired white man. So I guess there’s always pressure.”

Arrows & Traps’ fanbase of “devoted trappers” will, as always, spot some familiar faces in the cast. “A massive part of what makes an Arrows & Traps show so special is the people in it. We are a repertory company in the sense that there’s a core base of people involved, but we always try to mix it up with new actors, so it stays fresh.

“We have Pearce Sampson playing Jesus, a very talented funny actor whom people may recognise as our Porter and Lennox from Macbeth, and bright young star Alex Stevens playing Paul – he was our Malcolm in Macbeth and our Demetrius in Titus Andronicus. The deliciously watchable Adam Elliott plays Judas; audiences at the Jack will remember him as Karenin, the husband in our Anna Karenina, and in the title role of Philip we have Will Mytum, a great actor renowned on the Off West End circuit, who previously played Vronsky in our Anna Karenina, and Chiron in Titus Andronicus. We have Elle Banstead-Salim playing Mary Magdalene, coming hot off of finishing her brilliant turn as Lady Macduff and Witch in Macbeth, and Gareth Kearns playing Matthew. Gareth has been involved in every Arrows show so far, and recently it was my honour to watch his 100th performance with us. There’s no-one I’d rather have on this project than Gareth, as he’s perfectly suited for it.

“And then lastly we have three new actors, Tom Telford, Matthew Harrison-James, and Olivia Hanrahan-Barnes, all of whom I’ve auditioned in the past and was impressed by – it was just about getting the right role at the right time, which we’ve now found. I guess that’s a lesson in perseverance for any actor out there feeling like it’s too tough in the industry right now. We do listen, and we do remember, and we always come back to you when the time is right. So really, this amalgamation of both old and new faces is perhaps the thing about the show that I’m most looking forward to, because there is literally no weak link in these guys.”

Why should audiences come and see The Gospel According to Philip? “A brilliant tagline a friend used when I told her about the show was Passion Of The Christ With Jokes. If that doesn’t make you want to buy a ticket, then you’re dead inside. Also, supporting brilliant and passionate fringe venues like the Brockley Jack and Theatre N16 is so important if we want places like this to keep offering their communities such diverse and arresting art on their doorsteps.

“The play might make you think, but it will definitely make you laugh. It’s a great night out at the theatre. And the themes that it raises are exactly the things that we should be talking about right now. The world is a scary place, and terrible machinations are threatening to pull us apart as a human race. Faith is often held up as a banner or scapegoat for cruelty and hatred, and really, for things as old as religion, we need to go back to the start and look at what happened and learn from it. There’s something terrifying about the way that all the different religions have become so ingrained in our culture, our faiths, and yet really – every single one of them started as a flawed, wobbly cult, a series of men meeting in dark rooms telling stories and writing down rules for life. I think this play has a lot to say about our modern world, about those of us who are lost, and about where we should draw our strength from.

“Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a night of theological debate – there’s too many cock jokes in it for that. But as with the best of our satire, and I think Terry Pratchett may hold that crown for me, beneath the jokes and laughter there’s always a question, a poke in the ribs, something to argue about on the way home.”

Looking ahead, the rest of the season marks a return to more traditional fare, with the unique Arrows flavour that audiences have come to know and love. “The Broken Crown Season is epic. It’s massive. And it’s going to be the best work we’ve ever done. For me, the Broken Crown symbolises not just the fall of a king, but the breakdown and hollowness of responsibility, power and promise. It’s about ambition and the price that comes with it. It’s about kings, and gods, and leaders, but also relationships and trust. We’ve started things off with Macbeth, an obvious choice to get things rolling, now we’re tackling Jesus and the birth of Christianity, and after that we open our first true repertory double bill with Twelfth Night and Othello, performed simultaneously at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, on alternate nights over three weeks in November by the same cast. It’s going to be amazing fun, particularly on double show days where we do both texts.

“In the new year, we bring a modern horror-story vision of Frankenstein set in two different time periods, flicking in and out of a pair of narratives, and we finish with a thriller award-winning adaptation of Crime & Punishment, which has been boiled down into an action-packed, edge of your seat, 90-minute, three-hander, which I cannot wait to do, personally, as the script is electric. After that… watch this space.  The Arrows have plenty more stories to tell.”

Catch The Gospel According to Philip at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 30th August-3rd September, and Theatre N16 from 4th-8th September.

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