Exploring the life and teachings of Paul the Apostle, Howard Brenton's Paul is a play that examines – and raises profound questions about – the historical basis of Christianity. It was first performed in the Cottesloe auditorium of the National Theatre, London, on 9 November 2005 (previews from 30 September).
The play proposes that the most famous conversion in history – when Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus – was prompted by a trick: it was actually Jesus appearing to him. Jesus did not die on the cross but was rescued and sheltered by his brother James, by Peter and by Peter’s wife, Mary Magdalene. But they prefer to keep Paul in the dark because, although he is mistakenly preaching that Christ rose again, at least it keeps him busy and gets the message of Christianity out there. Now imprisoned by Nero, Peter finally tells Paul the truth before they go to their deaths as the first Christian martyrs.
Paul was Howard Brenton’s first solely authored original play to be professionally staged since Berlin Bertie in 1992. The National Theatre premiere was directed by Howard Davies and designed by Vicki Mortimer. Paul Rhys, the actor originally cast in the role of Paul, had to withdraw from the production due to exhaustion; he was replaced in the role by Adam Godley, and the press night, originally scheduled for 6 October, was postponed until 9 November.
It was reported (Observer, 9 October 2005) that the National Theatre received 200 letters of complaint about the 'irreverent' nature of the play, even before opening night. Paul nonetheless received admiring reviews, and Brenton went on to write a string of well-received, historically-inspired dramas including In Extremis (Shakespeare's Globe, 2006, later retitled Eternal Love), Never So Good (National Theatre, 2008) and Anne Boleyn (Shakespeare's Globe, 2010).