Adelaide Fringe 2014
Joshua J Ladgrove’s new show, Come Heckle Christ, is as much about its audience as it is about the man on stage. Less a show and more an installation, this performance inexplicably pushes boundaries and reveals social tensions, polarising us about its central, implicit issue.
Waiting for Come Heckle Christ to begin I get a call from nature I have to answer, so I head for the gents to relieve the pressure, but no sooner do I find the lavatory than I am ejected (along with everyone else who’s queueing for a slash) on account of a bomb threat. Police and hired security are very much in evidence on the premises, as are the religious protestors, loudly calling their epithets from without in the street; no cheek-turning tonight, evidently. There is a sense of excited tension in the Tuxedo Cat lobby; as if we’ve all unwittingly stumbled into a bank holdup or a movie premiere. The thing is, it all seems a bit blown out of proportion.
In a heckling masterclass, Canadian current affairs (read: right-wing tabloid) journalist Michael Coren makes what I’m sure he thinks are some very good points when he tries to bully Ladgrove into admitting he wouldn’t pull the same stunt with the Prophet Muhammad. Calling the premise for the show “low-hanging fruit”, Coren accuses Ladgrove of doing the show as a publicity stunt and asks “why don’t you really go after the issues and [sic] affect us, not something that would have outraged mum and dad?” And, prior to seeing the show (and the Michael Coren interview), I might have agreed. It seems like such a dated stab at political theatre but, standing in the lobby with uniformed police all around and security staff doing bag checks, it’s clear that people are affected. The very fact that there are professional mudslingers dialing in from as far away as Canada to take a shot is proof enough that Ladgrove is onto something bigger than he probably imagined.
The performance itself is nothing to write home about – it’s about as simple as it gets. Ladgrove, dressed as the central figure, stands stretched out on a cross, and in the soft glow of the baby-blue stage lighting, gazes out at us placidly waiting for us to heckle. “Are we ready, my techs,” he asks gently, and the performance begins. The heckles themselves come in all forms – some jeering and mocking (just as the preachers will have feared), most playful and friendly (who’s your favorite Friends character?), and some poor souls seemingly genuinely looking for a divine answer. There are one or two obnoxious types that are smoothly put in their place when they get a little too bold.
Ladgrove plays it safe for the most part, avoiding any really inflammatory responses (even when we open the door wide for it) and keeping it all fairly PC. There’s a bit of interesting phenomenological play as Ladgrove deliberately slips in and out of character, reminding us time and again that we are watching an actor playing a character. We are never allowed to suspend our disbelief for more than a few minutes, and that’s probably for the best, given the tension creeping in from outside where the protesters continue to grow in volume as the show goes on.
Warren sits down two seats away from me wearing a t-shirt, which says “I am a friend of Christ”. He doesn’t heckle; doesn’t condemn; doesn’t do anything, apart from sit quietly through the performance with an unreadable expression. When the show finishes, he doesn’t clap, but simply gathers his things and prepares to go. He’s definitely in the minority as we walk out onto the street and the venom washes over us from the ranks of frantic zealots voicing their disapproval. News crews shove microphones in our faces to get sound bites for the evening programme and it’s all we can do to slip away without getting into a morality debate on local television.
If the role of art is to ask questions, to press boundaries and hold up a mirror so we can better see ourselves, then Ladgrove’s latest effort is a resounding success. Drawing the ire of archbishops and politicians, as well as the attention of Coren and his ilk, Come Heckle Christ shows us that, far from dissecting a tired issue from a previous generation for publicity’s sake, Ladgrove has touched the nerve of an alarmingly conservative culture and, like turning on the lights in an infested kitchen, set us all scurrying.