Friends or enemies? Gary Skelton and Stephen Notman are to play Jesus and Judas respectively in the upcoming production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s masterpiece is being staged by The Gilbert and Sullivan Society at City Hall from October 6. *Photo by Kageaki Smith
Friends or enemies? Gary Skelton and Stephen Notman are to play Jesus and Judas respectively in the upcoming production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s masterpiece is being staged by The Gilbert and Sullivan Society at City Hall from October 6. *Photo by Kageaki Smith

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16: For two of the island’s devoted Christians, getting the opportunity to play Jesus and Judas in a major upcoming production has simply answered their prayers. 

The Bermuda Sun’s photo editor Gary Skelton as Jesus and lawyer-turned-theology scholar Stephen Notman, profess that their upcoming roles in Gilbert and Sullivan’s presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS) are the most significant in their acting careers.

For Notman, Judas is a role he has wanted to play for many years. It seems almost like divine providence that he should land it just as he prepares to leave the island and his career in law to pursue a PhD in Theology at Durham University.

The greatest story

“This is a great swan song to go off with,” he beams. “Judas is this great character who breathes life into a historical figure who is a major part of the greatest story ever told.

“I watched this show when I was about twelve and I feel like it baptized my religious imagination.

“It’s emotionally challenging as it is a story I connect very strongly with — there have been moments when I am genuinely crying on stage. It’s my favourite musical and it’s amazing that I have had this opportunity.”

For Skelton, well, surely it doesn’t get much better than playing the saviour himself?

“There was no question I would be auditioning for this,” he says. “There is something very humbling as a Christian trying to interpret this role.

“I am trying to find that balance of emotion — he’s not just angry but he gets upset, he feels alone and feels abandoned yet at other times he is joyous and excited.

“He also feels pity for his friends and disciples, who will be torn asunder by the events to come.

“It is humbling to say the very least. You can’t capture all that, maybe some of the greats can.”

JCS was first staged on Broadway in 1971 as a rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

Based loosely on the gospel, it charts the final six days of Jesus Christ in the run up to his crucifixion. Told through the eyes of his betrayer Judas Iscariot, it highlights political and personal struggles between the two not written in the Bible including his insistence that Jesus is a mere mortal.

It was made into a film in 1973 directed by Norman Jewison, starring Ted Neely as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas.

As Christians, there was potential for both Notman and Skelton to take issue with at least some parts of the portrayal of the gospel but they are comfortable with director John Payton’s version of events. 

“John showed a profound respect and sensitivity towards the material,” explains Notman. “I didn’t have any qualms or hesitations about following his direction.

“There is this relationship between Mary (Magdalene), Judas and Jesus where there is competition for Jesus’ attention. Some productions have deliberately tried to offend Christians by suggesting there was some sexual love triangle but right off the bat John said there is no sexual relationship between any character. I was relieved when I saw that.”

Skelton added: “I think people get frustrated with films like the Passion of Christ and Jesus of Nazzareth that have certain amount of reverence for Jesus — this show is not so much in that respect.”

“But it’s not irreverent,” Notman interjects. “It is not an atheistic take on the gospel — it’s just there to show his humanity.”

Human side

Skelton continues: “It is trying to look at the human side of Jesus, his doubts, and his frustrations and his motivations when everyone around him has different ideas of what he should be doing.”

“There is no physical resurrection in this and God is an unseen character within the show.”

Internationally-established director John Paynton has directed numerous productions in the Middle East, Lancaster and London and this is his seventh time directing Jesus Christ Superstar.

There are 35 actors and singers involved in the production including Jennifer Osmond as Mary Magdalene.

Notman and Skelton have been preparing for their parts in various ways since late August.

While Skelton fits the bill physically for the part of Jesus with his long hair and beard, he has just successfully completed an intensive fitness regime to even better resemble the svelte Son of God. You can read his most recent diary entry here.

Both actors have had some degree of experience in theatrical singing through musicals, pantomime and even operetta for Skelton. But both admit JCS, a rock opera in which not one unsung line is delivered, has proven to be an entirely different ball game.

Skelton does have some training, not least from his opera singer wife Jennie Campbell.

Formerly a full-time actor, he has played musical roles including Napoleon in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Animal Farm and Lysander in a musical version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream and he also sang with a vocal quartet in the UK.

“This is combining it in a way I have never had to before,” he says. “It has given me quite a new respect for musical theatre actors. This is definitely the biggest role and my first musical theatre lead.”

Notman has played plenty of villains and rogues in his time including serial killers (Frozen), King slayers (Hamlet) and desperate dames (The Firebird). But he says of his singing role as a Jesus-betraying Judas: “This is light years beyond anything I have ever done. This is a massive role.

“It’s not like straight theatre where you do have to know basically what your moves are but in this every beat counts and every individual movement corresponds to something happening in the score. It’s very precise.

“We have very different singing voices — Gary has a very beautiful, choir-like trained singing voice. It sounds like the kind of voice that Jesus Christ would have had. I just yell the notes and you can hear the whiskey and cigarettes in my voice. If he is Christina Aguilera, I’m Pink.”