The Messiah Complex
Devised and scripted by Alexander Knott, James Demaine and Ryan Hutton with the company; original music and sound design by James Demaine and Samuel Heron
Bag of Beard Theatre
Network Theatre — VAULT Festival
It would be easy to dismiss the story of a totalitarian state practising hard-line religious intolerance as pure fiction, but the state persecution of peoples for their faith has a long and ugly chronology. It is one that continues to this day for many hundreds of thousands from Christians in Eritrea to Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Bag of Beard's new play, The Messiah Complex, taps into these resonances.
It is set some time in a familiar future. The Great Experiments have taken place and the Complex controls a society run along completely rational principles, the existence of God having been empirically disproven. Those who transgress and continue to believe are committed to a correctional institution. Sethian is one such person, his back-story told in flashbacks.
Piece by piece, we see him tempted by the persuasive Sophia, a zealous follower of Adam, a character who is never seen but who has the authority of a cult leader. Enamoured with Sophia, Sethian willingly takes a bite from the apple and, with the devotion of a convert, complies with her directions for the advancement of the cause, even as the actions become successively more extreme.
In the present, Sethian is detained in the unit where he undergoes rehabilitative therapy, enduring memory wipes and electroconvulsive punishments. At the last, the system requires that Sethian choose between belief and life-long detention or acquiescence and freedom, though perhaps the options are not so binary.
In amongst the dialogue, which is rich with imagery and references to evocative real-life acts of religious censorship, points, often philosophical, are raised but they are not always clear or fully explored.
Supporting this thriller is a soundscape which occasionally drowns out the dialogue but is strong and darkly atmospheric, pairing well with projected images that underscore the action with haunting passages of video (design and cinematography by Charles Flint) ramping up the sinister tenors of the story.
A K Golding's wordy, manipulative Sophia contrasts starkly with Sasha Clarke's clear and certain Nurse, asking simple questions to which there are only complicated answers. In their own way, they show equal determination to control Anthony Cozens's Sethian.
Alexander Knott, James Demaine and Ryan Hutton, who together created and scripted this devised work, have also directed it with a cracking pace. They have Golding and Clarke enter from opposite sides reinforcing Sethian's position caught between two forces competing for his allegiance.
Cozens does the heavy lifting as the intelligent but flawed Sethian. In a carefully pitched performance, his emotions and energy artfully turn on a pin to deliver the alternating dialogues. The final scenes are gripping as he portrays a man whose faith has taken him to extremes.
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti