We all know the Nativity story of how pregnant Mary travelled on a donkey, led by her husband Joseph, to Bethlehem where, in a stable, she gave birth to the baby Jesus.
Turns out that, like so many things about Christmas, a donkey was a later addition to the story. So, pondered theatre-maker and author Geoff Allen, how did it get there into the tale in the first place? Allen, who heads Galatea Theatre, has come up with his own explanation of why we think Mary rode into town on a donkey.
He's written, and is directing, a "first millennium farce about virgins, mules and art". The Madonna's Mule is set in 999 when, just like when Y2K rolled round, citizens believed the world would end when the new millennium began. In Allen's comedy, an Abbess hires an artist to paint a fresco so beautiful it will catch God's eye, win his favour and save her abbey from the fiery pits. But the artist is on the run from his wife, pregnant mistress and a gangster he owes money to.
Allen says he got the idea for the story sitting in church listening to his wife, Methodist minister Robyn Allen Goudge, give a sermon which mentioned that there was almost certainly no donkey with Mary and Joseph.
Long fascinated with how historical stories are developed, Allen decided to write "the almost, well not really, true story of how the mule got into Christian art".
"Some plays come quickly but this one was about two–three years in the making."
Then, when it was written and he decided to stage it, Allen remembered a rehearsal room and theatre at the Pitt Street Methodist Church.
"I suppose I walk in two worlds – the church world and the independent theatre world," he says. "Most of the shows I go to tell stories about people overcoming obstacles in their lives and often Biblical stories have similar themes so both are about lifting up the human spirit."
Using the Pitt St space has also led to the resurrection of theatre at the church. Up until last year, the church's Theatre Pitt had been home to Pilgrim Productions for 15 years. That company, in turn, had spent 40 years making plays, often with Christian themes, and touring them throughout the community.
Allen's Galatea Theatre will now be based there and the venue further developed for other independent theatre companies to use. He expects to fully launch late next year and says he's been partly inspired by what he's seen and experienced at Te Pou, the Māori home of theatre in Auckland.
The Madonna's Mule stars Joseph Wycoff, Kat Glass, Adam Rohe (recently seen in Silo Theatre's HIR), Rebekah Dack, Elizabeth Gill, Suzy Sampson, James Crompton and Katherine Watson.
What: The Madonna's Mule
Where & when: Pitt Street Methodist Church, Wednesday, December 5 – Saturday, December 15