When you first meet Jo Clifford, the thing that impresses you most about her is the mellifluous, gentle, soulful and often mischievous voice. Once you get to know her, you find it is not how she speaks that electrifies you, but what she says. Her words are always deeply considered, impassioned and thought provoking – and regularly playful
This is not a surprise, as her work tackles intense topics, most obviously her experience as an exceedingly open transsexual woman, but also her knowledge of religious scriptures and 17th Century Spanish theatre. However, the most integral aspect of her character is that she adores acting, was the loving partner to the late feminist Sue Innes, and is now a proud father and doting grandmother.
When I arrive for the interview Jo greets me with her warm and gentle smile, and invites me into her rather stunning waterside apartment. She asks if me I want a cuppa and I reply “Yes please, some tea, thanks.”
Here reply is classic, ever thoughtful, Jo Clifford: “Indian or Chinese?
”Oh, Indian, thanks Jo” She then brews us both up a pot of tea each, just before the interview begins.
“I’d like us begin with discussing The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven. How did you get involved with the subject matter of that play?”
Jo pauses and has a sip of tea.
It came about as I was trying to understand the origins of the oppression that we suffer from.
Why is it that trans people aren’t generally accepted in Western society – what’s going on here? And when I thought about it, it was obvious: its origins, or at least a very crucial part of them, come from religious thinking.
A lot of it you can find it in the Bible. So I started to study the Bible, particularly the Book of Genesis, and at the same time I was also reading a lot about the origins of patriarchy and the end of matriarchy, because it seems very clear that before we worshipped the Father God in the sky, that we worshipped the mother God on the earth.
Societies were organised in a very different way. Society was on the whole matriarchal. And that a lot of the emotional push and emotional energy of many of the books in The Old Testament came from a period when worship of the Mother God was being suppressed, and the worship of the Father God was being imposed on the world. And a lot of the unhappiness that you find in the dear old Father God Yahweh probably comes from that period. With Yahweh’s experience of having to suppress His femininity, I found a correlation to that in my having to suppress my femininity as an adolescent.
So I created a play based on those conceits that told God’s story and my own analogous story. I put it on at my own expense in 2003, as I couldn’t get anyone to commission it.
It was a difficult thing to undertake, and I had to pay for it by myself – luckily I was working, as a lecturer. Anyway – I put on this play, God’s New Frock, and it was an extraordinary experience and I was really coming out at that stage, which I wasn’t really ready to do, and I had a breakdown soon afterwards, it was very, very stressful.
It was a tough thing to do. I forgot about the play and I was working very hard on other projects.
And then – somehow – it got sent to a company in Italy, in Florence, who loved it, and translated it into Italian and put it on. Teatro della Limonaia, just outside Florence…
“Eh, I dinnae want tae try and spell that… HA-HA-HA!”
Jo then sweetly and apologetically says to me: No, don’t, don’t worry about it. You don’t need the name, I’m just showing-off. And – my goodness, they flew me across and I saw it in Italy, and that audience loved the play. They just loved it.
It was spectacular to see, and I thought “well, wouldn’t it be a good thing to write its sequel, something based around The New Testament?”
So I put it to them, and they said “yeah, do that!”.
I replied “I’ll tell you what, if you find me a flat in Florence for fortnight next Summer, I’ll write it for you,” and they did, and I wrote the script in 2008.
But they lost interest and didn’t do anything with it. So I thought I could put it on myself and the chance came in 2009.
I performed it in Glasgay. And that was the very first production of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven. And again I was doing it largely at my own expense, I think I got £2000 from Glasgay, but mostly I was paying for it, and so was everyone else involved in it in their own way.
It was an astonishing experience – I didn’t think it would be. In God’s New Frock I called The Bible pornography, it’s quite fierce and nobody seemed to turn a hair. So I didn’t see why there would a problem with The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven.
I was dumbfounded and very frightened to be honest, to turn-up on the first night to see that the street outside The Tron Theatre was full of people with placards. Luckily I was able slip in the back door and didn’t need to walk past them.
As the week went on people said, “oh, don’t worry, there’s a plain clothes police officer in the audience” – that wasn’t particularly reassuring!
I blurt out the word “no” in flabbergasted disbelief and agreement at that last statement.
The day after the opening, I was interviewed by all the papers. People were really frightened about the play, the box office staff at The Tron Theatre had been getting a lot of abuse and personal threats. Someone was even beaten-up in the street for being gay, at the end of the night before, and the day after that I found myself on the front page of The Herald and I was going “Oh fuckin’ ‘ell!”
Not only that, BBC cameras had been there. It had gone around the world – all around the world! By the end of that week, if you Googled Jesus, Queen of Heaven, you saw that the play had gotten 400,000 hits.
”I did actually Google it at that time and I remember my jaw dropping as I saw that.”
It was just incredible, and a lot of that was hatred, a lot of vile things were said about me. There was some very lovely support as well, but it was, it was just for a tiny theatre, and of course the theatre was sold-out, it was unbelievable and I was very traumatised by it.
At the end of it, Scottish critics didn’t support me at all. I just felt on my own and very, very anxious – yet at the same time I felt that I had stumbled upon something very significant. And that it was important to bring it back.
Dear Glasgay couldn’t do it, because they had been so viciously attacked – it was dreadful what had happened to them. Bit by bit, since then, I’ve recovered and performed it in various places, in Augustine United Church, in a church down in Oxford, down at the Pink Fringe of Brighton, in the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool as part of something called Tranny Weekend – HA-HA – which I loved taking part of.
But I’ve always had in mind to put it on in The Edinburgh Fringe, my intention was to get a grant – HA-HA-HA-HA! – to get some proper funding for it, but somehow that’s been impossible and because this project touches on a very deep nerve of personal distress – when all these people were demonstrating, and even right back to all my childhood terrors and the moment that I gave-up acting in my teenage years. It was very, very traumatic.
And then I was invited to perform it at the Just Festival in St. John’s Church, because I wanted to put it on in a church, it was imperative, especially after being condemned by the Archbishop of Glasgow Mario Conti, for being blasphemous. He said it was hard to imagine a greater affront to the Christian faith than my play – never having seen it or read it, of course.
“Even though archbishops tend to own the most fabulous collection of frocks you could ever imagine?”
HA-HA-HA-HA – Yeah, I make fun of that in God’s New Frock.
We both giggle like a couple of school girls at this.
And umm… yeah, it’s been very tough. The Just Festival for three years invited me to present it, and at the last minute each time they’ve decided they couldn’t do it, it’s too worrisome for them to host it, and this happened again this year.
The committee said it way too offensive, and there was too much sex in it, it was unacceptable.
But this year I got very angry and I thought, I’ve got to do it anyway. And I approached various people, and the rector of the St Mark’s Unitarian Church, who said that they’d love for me to do it there. I’m doing it there, as a kind of active resistance.
It’s been very difficult to do, to bring it back – and overcoming a lot of fear. But I think that’s part of the power and the significance of doing it.
As Jo relates all that to me, I can sense her reliving the experiences of that time, so I change tack little a bit to, simply to give her some respite. This, however, gives Jo to a chance to explain her other less obvious but no less vital reasons for creating The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven.
”During the course of The Bible, doesn’t God have many changes of heart about many issues? If someone like me, who is an irreligious layperson, can easily spot that, how come many religious types who claim to know The Bible well overlook that?”
I think the way Western Society is based upon the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are an unusual society that insists that there are only two genders. If you look into it, most of the other societies and cultures that have been in the world recognise that there are more than two genders, and are much more humane and wise than Western Culture is. It’s also a medical fact that there are more than two genders.
But if you try and assert that there are only two genders – BOM, male and female, that’s it! – then you’re doing a violence to the truth. And people who do violence to the truth tend to assert their lie all the more forcefully. HA-HA – and that’s what Western Culture does. It just asserts louder, and louder and louder that there are only two genders.
Whenever I speak in public, I am amazed how many people come-up to me afterwards and it will be people who were born male and feel female, or people that have always lived as women and they might have some hormonal defect, or something like that, that has caused them misery all of their lives.
Or women coming up to me, saying they used to have very senior positions in firms, but felt sadness, as they couldn’t be a woman in their job, and it’s only now they have retired that they can become themselves. When I was young, I had a sense that I was the only person that suffered from this in the whole world. Now I am beginning to think that actually everybody suffers from it. That everybody suffers because we all feel that we don’t quite fit in, we’re not quite the woman, or man, the person that we are supposed to be, and this causes immense grief and sadness.
Maybe that’s one reason why when I was transitioning I used to get abuse shouted at me so often on the street. Because somehow I represented that very unhappiness that everyone is ashamed of and can’t quite admit to – how important it is to be unashamed and unafraid and visible, if possible – to just be out there.
I then ask her how this play and God’s New Frock reflect her own spirituality
Very greatly! I’ve always been aware that there is a spiritual dimension to life. Mostly through churches – though, most of them do not do a very good job of it. But, I’ve always been aware of that and always explored it, and I have been a churchgoer for some years now. I’ve really taken it up in quite a big way recently; because of you are being Jesus on stage…
Jo laughs uproariously and playfully, as do I.
You have to try and get in touch with that part of yourself, really! So, it’s essential, it’s central to it.
“What did you enjoy most about performing in this play?”
When I was young I discovered that I loved performing and that’s something that has been largely put to one side throughout my life and it is just such a joy to re-discover it. Such a joy. And I feel completely at home when I am on a stage and also when a camera is pointing at me, which is interesting. It’s fulfilling a very deep need.
Though I still love writing plays, performance has become more central to me, another reason why I am re-discovering my true vocation that was repressed all those years ago. So I suppose it’s two things at once.
Jo Clifford is currently performing her play The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, at artSpace@StMarks (Venue 125) 22:30 in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe until Saturday 23rd of August 2014.