Messiah - Scenes from a Crucifixion

Steven Berkoff
Old Vic
(2003)

Steven Berkoff certainly imprints himself upon this new production of his reworking of the life of Jesus. Not only has he written and directed the play but now, as it reaches the West End three years after its award-winning Edinburgh debut, he takes on the highly appropriate role of Satan, originally played by Tam Dean Burn.

Berkoff clearly has a whale of a time with his fifteen minutes of fame on stage. Leather-clad, he struts around the stage like the devil himself and has little sympathy for the Messiah.

The start of Messiah is very powerful, as Greg Hicks as Jesus spends an inordinate length of time on a symbolic nail-cross stretching his muscles to the limit. While he does so, he is worshipped by his mother (Helen Schlesinger) and lampooned by a bunch of disrespectful soldiers who sound like a bunch of football fans but look like 1960s Eastenders. As the latter return at the end of the play, it is apparent that they are gambling for the remains of Jesus' clothes that they hope will become valuable religious relics.

The life of Christ is largely recalled in retrospect from a cross commencing at birth and running through highlights involving the condemnatory Pontius Pilate (Michael Jenn), the mercenary but loving Judas (Brendan Hughes) and the headless John the Baptist (Jonathan Coyne).

The production itself is rather an odd mix. It combines Berkoff's always excellent physical comedy which shows remarkable imagination and, in this case, blasphemous but very contemporary irreverence, with a relatively serious re-reading of biblical history.

Even then, the always-skilled Hicks is not allowed to remain serious for too long. In one of the funniest scenes in the play, he delivers extracts from a sermon straight faced then he instantly turns off the power and becomes an actor during rehearsals deconstructing his performance.

This is also a man who stage manages his death on the cross and resurrection with the greatest care to ensure that he both survives and suffers the minimum of discomfort, always allowing for a few nails in uncomfortable places.

In front of a giant image of a stigmatised hand, the story of the Messiah is at its best when Berkoff chooses to be irreverent. Some of the serious self-justification from disciples and lawmakers can be a little hard to take. While this is not necessarily Berkoff at his best, his large fan club will love it and as a Christmas show, it is certainly streets ahead of Aladdin.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher