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Is Sandy Nelson’s “The Gospel Inquiry” just a dazzling intellectual game or can one locate something more serious, an accessible moral destination, at the end of it all? I’m going to be arguing for the latter, but before I do so I should stress that “The Gospel Inquiry” is indeed a fiendish, highly enjoyable game. It comes with its own rules which the audience are required to learn and follow.

The play, which unfolds under chandeliers in the Assembly Rooms, is based upon an extraordinary premise. Some judicial authorities, who don’t appear to exist in any particular time or place, have set up an inquiry, à la Lord Leveson, into the journalistic abuses of the Biblical Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John will all testify at this inquiry, with each of them vividly transformed into tabloid journalists by an alternating Jimmy Chisholm and Tom Freeman. An unscheduled fifth witness, played by Sandy Nelson, disconcerts the inquiry. The identity of this last witness won’t be a surprise to any of you who have read the Bible closely. Quite deliciously, this fifth witness is both a figure of suitable moral solemnity and a schemie who is so twitchy that he must be on something.

But this play is essentially a Penrose triangle, with the Evangelists referring freely to Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King. We might toy with the idea that the judge and the QC are angels, who are holding their hearings in the afterlife. Alas, only the fifth witness admits to being dead (oops, I almost gave the game away there!) and so this puts us squarely back in the post-Crucifixion Jerusalem.

“The Gospel Inquiry” may not be ultimately committed to being funny, or to making serious points, but to simply inhabiting and elaborating upon its wondrously paradoxical premise. Even at its most diabolical, the play is never boastfully clever or over-the-top. Instead, there is always a calmness, the sense of constant expert calculations, underneath its writing. A garden of exquisite ironies has been laid out for us to admire. In fact, this play might strike you as being too full, or too massive for its small stage. Were I not in the scramble of the Fringe, I would see it two or three times to allow all of it to properly soak in.

Mark is a vision of spluttering, snorting Edinburgh camp, as adorable as a Pekingese. Centuries of Christian-inspired art have only now come to achieve the precise combination of blasphemy and surrealism behind his description of a triumphant Christ doing jazz-hands and high-kicks on the Cross. Luke convincingly resembles the Sun newspaper’s Kelvin Mackenzie. All of Jesus’ miracles are soon reduced to the status of unlikely News of the World stories, with the walking-on-the-water now displaying the same credibility as “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster.”

Of course, this analogy cannot be pushed too far. Judas, the “victim” of the Gospels’ irresponsible reporting, did not get his phone hacked. The Bible unfortunately never had a Page 3 section. Nonetheless, the Leveson assumption that the press should be scrupulously respectable is shown to be even more inadequate when it comes to the Bible than it ever was with the Sun.

For the humour in “The Gospel Inquiry” is not cheap or wearily familiar undergraduate atheism. The satire is sophisticated enough to irk bigots on both sides of the divide. In the end Jesus’ power to persuade his followers to share their food with each other is more important than the exact fact of how many loaves and fishes they consumed. That Jesus was not exiled from his community for being illegitimate, but given pride by knowing that he was a son of God, makes the factual basis of the Virgin Birth seem to be, quite unexpectedly, like trivia. Jesus’ miracles may not be “rational” truth but rational truth still remains an incomplete alternative to the lies of the Gospel.

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