Despite its long and unwieldy title, the premise of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is relatively simple. The entire plot consists of these three famous men finding themselves in a locked room together. The playwright Scott Carter leaves them there alone to bump against each other, like observing a chemical experiment. Carter highlights their differences, as while the lives of all three men overlapped in the 18th century, their timelines were just adjacent to each other. All were from different countries and held different temperaments. Dickens and Tolstoy were both authors, but Jefferson was a politician who disliked public speaking. Jefferson and Tolstoy were both born into aristocracy, but Dickens climbed his way up from the working-class. The triumvirate always seems unbalanced. But eventually, the three find a commonality, the historical curiosity that each composed their own personal Gospel. But this similarity soon reveals further divisions when their Gospels differ in interpretation.
Filled with such heavy and almost academic detail, both historical and theological, The Gospel is a fascinating play that eventually becomes outweighed by its own ideas. Events are kept light by the interplay between the countrymen, each bringing a unique religious perspective on Christianity, and using witty wordplay to undermine the others. The actors bring reasonable distinctions between the men while remaining engaging, even if occasionally dipping into caricature. The play is particularly compelling in the first half, with the men’s bickering adding energy to the scenes, and highlighting the contrast between God’s absolute but ineffable Truth and the inevitably flawed interpretations mankind produces.
However, like the cramped and sparse staging of the Greenside Ivy Studio, once the play’s premise has been set in motion, there is little space left for it to go. Confinement makes the three compare their Gospels, but these discussions seem to endure without resolution, and the action monotonously continues without enough dramatic shifts to keep the audiences engaged. The high-calibre writing begins to drag and descend into monologues, rather than the quick-witted exchanges of the play’s first half. It slightly perks up towards the end, when the men juxtapose their religious beliefs with their fallible lives – after all, Jefferson was the one who wrote “all men are created equal” while owning 600 slaves – but by then the energy has left the room, even if the characters aren’t able to.
The Gospel contains a unique combination of 18th century icons, and their creative comparisons allow interesting insights around different approaches to life and the divine. Overall, it’s a play that never quite gets past its premise, regardless of how potent that is alone. You might end the show intellectually stimulated, but also grateful that you were able to leave the room.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is on at Greenside @ Infirmary Street – Ivy Studio (Venue 236)
At 14:00 until August 17th (excluding 15th)
Get tickets here
Image: Courtney Beamish – White Rabbit Theatre Company