Review: The Gospel Of Matthew By Candlelight at St Matthew’s church, Monday 5th March

By - Monday 13th March, 2017

A scholarly yet boisterous presentation of Jesus takes to the stage

Photo by George Dillon, used with permission.

Any regular church goer will hear readings from the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, at just about every service of worship. But to hear an entire gospel being read is a rarity. To hear and see a gospel being performed is a privilege. This is what actor George Dillon offered at St Matthew’s church on a cold clear Monday night just a week into the penitential season of Lent.

To attend seemed a seasonally appropriate thing to do, but it was also a theatrical treat. Dillon performs his solo staging in a space created by bordering it with dozens of small candles. By not relying on any technology for lighting and sound, he can take the performance anywhere – and he is currently touring churches in London and the south of England. Clad simply in a white hooded shirt and trousers, he inhabits his stage and draws the audience in with his eloquent physicality and extensive vocal range. The performance lasted over an hour and a half – a veritable tour de force.

The gospel of Matthew starts with a genealogy to show how Jesus is descended from various notable figures – hardly an entertaining read unless it is presented by an actor who knows what he is doing. Dillon made it both riveting and relevant, partly due to his rich and resonant voice, but also because he varied the pace – whizzing through lists of obscure names but slowing right down at important names or events and finally building up to the names of Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus.

The gospel of Matthew is one of the two gospels which tell the story of the birth of Jesus, but Dillon wisely decided to cut this and move on to the teaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of the adult Jesus. From this point, Dillon demonstrated how he could people the stage with all the characters in the story, switching from narrator to a crazily prophetic John, then to Jesus, then to a huge and dominating ‘voice from heaven’.

Dillon’s physical work is reminiscent of theatre practitioner Steven Berkoff – indeed, he has worked with him. He can change his physicality, voice and speech patterns to inhabit the many characters which appear in the gospel story. His movement is wonderful to watch. He mimes eating, raising the sick and throwing traders out of the temple, and creates the crowds calling for Jesus’s crucifixion and the release of the criminal Barabbas. He even manages to create physical imagery from passages in the sermon on the mount, making each of Jesus’s teachings memorable through movement and gesture.

The performance is brave, visceral and mesmerising

Dillon’s portrayal of Jesus is also worthy of note. He scours the gospel text for every clue and presents a figure who can be thoughtful, scholarly and humorous but also ironic, boisterous and angry. This is a man who wants to change the world, challenge staid interpretations of the scriptures and can stand up to the authorities. But he still has his moment of total fear and agony in Gethsemane.

A large part of Matthew’s gospel focuses on Jesus’s teaching, parables and miracles. Dillon finds a great deal of rich storytelling in here. However, some of the teachings contain complex ideas which lack immediate drama and the performance would have lost none of its impact if this has been slightly abridged. Occasionally Dillon sat on the floor and for those of us in the rear of a non-raked and rather spontaneously set out seating arrangement, this was a little frustrating – especially as one of the gently humorous physical moments in the Passover meal involved Jesus throwing a grape (olive?) into the air and catching it in his mouth – perfectly executed mime, but difficult to see.

These are minor gripes. Dillon’s performance is brave, visceral and mesmerising. His characterisations – sometimes caricatures – are colourful, sensitively and lovingly presented by an actor who is passionate about his craft and committed to telling his story. Dillon’s tour continues through March and April. Catch it if you can.

Pamela Hall

Pamela Hall

Pamela is an actress/singer/vocal coach who has lived in Croydon for 15 years. Now she’s working closer to home, she has been able to enter into local life and wants to explore what Croydon’s cultural scene has to offer. Pamela is a Lay Clerk at Croydon Minster and on its Parish Council. She is committed to raising the profile of this beautiful and historic church as a jewel at the centre of Croydon life.

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