Peaches Christ Superstar review – a searing, defiantly queer take on the crucifixion

Theatre Royal, Hobart
Peaches’ reinterpretation of Jesus Christ Superstar retains the rock-opera roots of the original while infusing it with new meaning and her trademark humour

In Heaven on Their Minds, the first number of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash-hit rock opera about the last days before the crucifixion, Judas tells us, If you strip away the myth from the man / you will see / where we all soon will be.

This line seems to demand an excavation of not just the myth of the church but also of musical theatre excess. Peaches, the queer performance artist and rock star, has done exactly that in her defiantly stripped-back, serious interpretation of the show: a one-woman epic titled, of course, Peaches Christ Superstar.

With only Peaches herself (first in a nude bodysuit with fur-lined hoodie, later in in a gold jacket and tights) and a piano (the work’s soul and compass, played by Mathias Susaas Halvorsen), there are no distractions on stage from the essential, devastating humanity of the piece. There is Jesus, the dreamer-hero who seems miraculous in his radical compassion; Mary, an aloof woman with a past who has fallen into terrifyingly honest, unspoken love with Jesus; and Judas, who passionately supports Jesus and who is the most betrayed by the cult of worship that has infiltrated and frequently stymied their shared good works.

In Peaches’ version of the show, in which she performs all the roles and signals a change of character and mood with no more than a lighting plot and a toss of her head, Jesus has never really been able to get on top of his hype. There’s a real compassion in her treatment of the character: the first real moment we spend with him, without the interruption of Judas or Apostles or Israelites, is in the garden of Gethsemane. Here, Jesus is at his most complex as he grapples with his coming death; and Peaches finds a startlingly quiet moment at the end of the song to demonstrate the grace of accepting one’s fate.

When combined into one (remarkably strong) voice and woman, the ensemble becomes cloying and claustrophobic noise. In the first act, they seem to drown Jesus out entirely; he seems diminished by their declarations of obsessive love and pleas for healing. When he breaks down and cries “Heal yourself!” it’s never been so clear that the pressure is too much for one man, even this man: his followers are consuming him.

Even the Apostles seem like a naive liability, and Peaches highlights their self-interest and ineffectual support by adding a tilt of twisted humour to their fixation on their legacy, even in the moment when Jesus is telling them his betrayer will come from within their ranks.

The grandiose, highly charged elements of the score remain in Halvorsen’s bold and heartfelt accompaniment where the melody is champion, and its rock roots remain thanks to Peaches’ androgynous attitude and vocal affect; she has a raw, full-throated take on the show that’s rousing and compelling.

Peaches performing Benicassim, Spain
Peaches, known for her extravagant and transgressive performances, delivers the story of Jesus with feeling and compassion. Photograph: Samir Hussein/Getty Images

It might help to know the show as its own beast before seeing Peaches’ take, simply to have an already established sense of place within the narrative and score, but the heart of the show and the story nevertheless remains intact. Peaches fans won’t miss her trademark humour – she’s woven it cleverly into the show, especially in her shape-shifting assumption of identity and in her slick “ad-exec banter” take on the Romans negotiating Jesus’s death. King Herod, too, is imperiously camp in Peaches’ hands. You fall in love with him despite knowing he’s going to mark our guy Jesus for death.

Queer readings of Jesus Christ Superstar have frequently treated Judas’s love for Jesus as significant as, if not more, than Mary’s – Judas reprises Mary’s famous number I Don’t Know How to Love Him right before he dies by suicide – but as a queer artist whose usual remit is progressive and transgressive queer- and sex-positive anthemic performance, in Peaches’ hands that love is razor-sharp and heart-bursting. As haze envelops Judas in his final moments – one of the only tricks of stagecraft in the entire piece – Peaches is searing. A betrayal for a betrayal, and a directive that will quash queer love, she seems to be saying, is nothing but a tragedy.

As the story moves from confrontation to devastation, Peaches turns the lens on to the audience as a comment on the capacity of a community to descend into a mob; she encourages us to call out “Crucify him!” and revel in counting along with each of those 40 cruel lashes. Later, planted audience members move onstage as if possessed to adorn Jesus with his crown of thorns and attach him to the harness that serves as his cross.

The final, striking image is simple but dramatic: Peaches hanging suspended in thin air, singing the final lines of the show. Finally everything truly is stripped away: all we are left with is Peaches, as Jesus, facing death alone. Our journey is complete, and our hearts are full.


Cassie Tongue

The GuardianTramp

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