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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Messiah - Scenes from a Crucifixion
Old Vic Theatre Winter 2003-2004

Steven Berkoff's version of the life and death of Jesus, first seen in Edinburgh 3 years ago, finally makes it to London. It is typical Berkoff in every way, which is to say that play, direction and performances are in your face, in the author/director/actor's trademark ways.

And for some that is the strongest recommendation I can make.

Berkoff is a specialised taste, I acknowledge. As a writer he mixes a unique and fertile imagination with a sometimes childish desire to shock. As a director, he insists on a stylised physicality, in which the most ordinary of actions are strictly choreographed, in a manner that no one else, short of some Parisian mimes, approaches. And as an actor he indulges in a style of mugging and vocal gimmickry that is as fascinating as it is self-indulgent.

And they're all here in his version of the Gospels.

At its core, his play takes the Passover Plot view of Jesus as a media-savvy hustler who took care that his career followed prophecies of the Messiah to the letter, even to the point of planning to fake the Resurrection. But this Jesus is also divine, perhaps without realising it himself, able to do miraculous cures almost in passing and offering a theology purer than any of its later churchly forms.

And that mix - of Jesus the ordinary man, the con man and the holy man - gives the play a depth and complexity that challenge you to think about your own image of him.

The same kind of incongruous mix typifies Berkoff's direction. As those familiar with his work could guess, almost every movement is strictly choreographed, with groups and individuals moving in beautiful or disturbing slow motion. And, also typically, characterisations mix the high with the banal, with - for example - the Roman soldiers dicing for Jesus' clothes turned into East End skinheads.

Greg Hicks plays Jesus with authority and depth, bringing his dark masculinity to the role in a way that anchors the character in solid mortality while still allowing the flashes of divinity to be believable.

Berkoff himself plays Satan in the wilderness sequence, making a token go at tempting Jesus before turning to the audience and delivering a set-piece aria reminding us how eager we are to succomb to temptation whenever and however it is offered.

It almost comes out of a different play, with Berkoff the director allowing Berkoff the actor to go over the top in ways that contrast with the tight controls on everyone else. But then, of course, it wouldn't be a Berkoff performance if he didn't go over the top.

The play is built on set pieces like that, almost all of them dramatically powerful and psychologically insightful. Among the highlights, Pilate (Michael Jenn) carefully dictating the official version of history to a scribe while living it, Jesus stepping down from the Sermon on the Mount and asking his handlers how it went and whether he wasn't a little over the top near the end.

Judas convincing himself that he's just helping the boss fill another prophecy. Jesus taking real sensual pleasure from the woman washing his feet, but later offering an explication of the Last Supper that puts most later exegesis to shame.

The only one that could be cut without much loss - just because its irony is a bit too obvious - is Caiaphas morphing into a latter-day pope, to show how Jesus' religion degenerated into the very thing he was rebelling against.

If you know Berkoff, you know whether you want to see this. If you don't, you owe it to yourself to give it a look.

If nothing else, it is a theatrical experience you just won't get anywhere else.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Messiah - Old Vic 2003