Steven Berkoff has long been one of Britain's most distinctive but also infuriating theatrical talents - distinctive, because he spent the 1970s and 80s breaking down the doors (and flaws) of British acting by insisting that performing didn't consist of what happened from the neck up but instead reached far below it; but also infuriating, because the excesses of applying this technique have now reached epic and wearying proportions.
Instead of illuminating his potentially fascinating re-telling of the Jesus story, Messiah - Scenes from a Crucifixion is fatally undermined by the artificiality and indulgence of so much of the performance. While the actors bring an undeniable discipline and commitment to performing to Berkoff's constrained (but never restrained) vision, they cannot bring any personality to it beyond Berkoff's own. No wonder that his more successful recent efforts have largely been one-person shows.
Here, though Berkoff only makes a brief cameo role, his signature is everywhere. "People love gestures - that's why they love the theatre," someone says early on, but applied to Berkoff, he loves gesturing. And with the actors constantly propelled into slo-mo display of overwrought anguish, it's looking increasingly like parody of feeling rather than feeling itself.
The language, too, is now increasingly repetitive and self-satisfied. As a playwright, Berkoff loves the sound of his own words, and never uses five when fifty will do. It's elaborate, elongated, rotund, verbose - and enervating instead of exhilarating.
Still, at a cool, calm centre of it, Greg Hicks - who last appeared on this stage in the highly stylised RSC Coriolanus in the summer - has a natural grace and physicality that does compel focus. "The Messiah will never come, so we have to create one," he says, outlining Berkoff's controversial point that Jesus was a political revolutionary who set about merely claiming to be the Messiah as part of a plan to encourage the overthrow of the occupying Roman forces.
Then, in Act Two, Satan - Berkoff himself, of course - swishes on, preening in sleeveless full-length leather coat, to deliver a 20-minute monologue of undisguised egotism that is one of the most monumental displays of over-acting it has ever been my misfortune to see on a London stage.
Constantly juggling the sacred and the profane, the whole over-elaborate exercise is ultimately oppressive instead of impressive.
- Mark Shenton