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Behold! The Monkey Jesus at the Jack Studio Theatre

“What is art?” – the question is asked in the opening moments of Behold! The Monkey Jesus, immediately followed by an admission that the notion is a pretentious one. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there’s a degree of subjectivity in portrait paintings. Not only is beauty in the eye of the beholder, but even out of ‘bad’ art, some good can arise. This is not to paint a picture, so to speak, of a sentimental play, but one that simply asks its audiences to consider various perspectives with regards to a real-life event.

Behold! The Monkey Jesus
Behold! The Monkey Jesus

Elías García Martínez (1858-1934) (Roger Parkins) had painted ‘Ecce Homo’ – Latin for ‘Behold the Man’ – displayed in the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja. As a nun (Louise Beresford) and a mother superior (Mary Tillett) point out, it was distinctly unremarkable, inasmuch as religious adherents looking at the fresco wouldn’t immediately recognise the man in the painting. Despite Martínez’s protestations, and the mother superior’s admission that nobody really knows what Jesus of Nazareth looked like, the Ecce Homo, as this play would have it, was donated by Martínez after the church refused to pay his invoice, claiming his work lacked artistic merit.

Tillett soon ditches the nunnery outfit for a cleaner’s one, assuming the central role of Cecilia Giménez, reported in the press at the time as an elderly parishioner. In this production, she’s also the church’s caretaker. Except what she believed to be ‘caretaking’ (my choice of word, rather than the play’s) stretched itself to making substantial alterations to Martínez’s fresco in August 2012, which weren’t exactly an improvement on the original, some of which had started to flake.

Florencio Garces (also Parkins), the parish priest, quite naturally goes ballistic at Giménez’s efforts, with a tirade I can only describe as Victor Meldrew 2.0, drawing hearty laughter from the audience by way of creative putdowns. The play, to its credit, follows the story right through to the infamy Giménez’s work achieved. Garces had quickly introduced charges for tourists to enter the church to see the fresco, apparently going as far as launching a range of merchandise (he was eventually charged with embezzlement and sexual abuse, the latter not being covered in the show as it is unrelated to the fresco and its botched restoration).

The media wasn’t portrayed in the most positive of lights, with an interviewer forcing a narrative through despite repeated denials from Giménez, who might have been presented as senile and doddery in another comedy show. Here, however, some poignancy and sensitivity is shown, as Giménez genuinely wanted to make a positive difference, and in insisting on a portion of profits from the tourist trade, puts her newfound income towards a worthy and meaningful cause. Tillett’s performance is earnest and convincing, and this can’t be the only instance out there where the parishioner seems to have more religious devotion than the priest.

A well-paced and well-delivered show that punches above its weight, given its straightforward ‘woman defaces artwork’ story, the play is as thoughtful as much as it is amusing, with a conclusion that would have been fanciful if it wasn’t true. Above all, it’s a hoot.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Honestly, if our Lord “hates” anything it’s the fact I wasn’t allowed to finish.

2012. Borja, Spain. Cecilia, a local parishioner and amateur artist, is about to change history. With the best intentions, her careful “restoration” of a beloved church fresco causes her to become an overnight internet sensation.

With the outrage from the church and the ridicule from the world, how far is Cecilia willing to go in order to protect her masterpiece?

A surreal black comedy about faith, self-expression and the viral sensation that is and will always be… the monkey Jesus.

Behold! The Monkey Jesus Listings Information
Venue: Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
Box office: www.brockleyjack.co.uk or 0333 666 3366

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