Steven Berkoff’s apparent intention when writing Messiah - Scenes from a Crucifixion was to look at his own reactions to the Gospels and the suffering of crucifixion. However, during the development of the play, he came across Dr Hugh Schonfield's The Passover Plot which paralleled many of his own views of Jesus as more man than god and the crucifixion as more plot than fate.
The resulting play is actually not an exploration of new theories or interpretations but more a number of set-pieces from the view of Judas (Brendan Hughes), the Devil (Cornell John), Pontius Pilate (Michael Jean), John the Baptist (Jonathan Coyne), Mary (Julie Riley), the church and the disciples spanning the period of Jesus' life and death. Weaving words from the Bible with the dialogue keeps the play rooted in what we know whilst allowing us to explore new, and by no means derogatory, ideas of Jesus' intent and purpose. Indeed, whilst on the surface, this play appears to undermine the gospels it actually displays throughout great respect for core Christian beliefs and believers.
The setting and style chosen for the production is simple and allows us to use our own imaginations to fill in the details. The play is acted very physically with large movements punctuated by freezes reminiscent of classical paintings. The ugly mob in general and the Jews in particular are highly stylised and intended to raise a laugh, almost Ealing Comedy in their delivery and stop-action animated in their movement.
The Jesus we find here in Finbar Lynch is a very human person, prepared to sacrifice all for the people and society he loves. However, Berkoff's direction does leave him as the character with the least colour; there's almost a flatness in his presentation which distinguishes him from the other characters. The background music, more reminiscent of a film or TV show, is effective and compelling and the acting as a whole shows enormous discipline - being still on stage is far harder than moving!
On reflection, there are two main ways of approaching this piece: it can be seen as an overindulgent skit using caricature Jews, a black devil, token woman, swearing, blasphemy and anti-catholic humour or as a very personal attempt to square belief, history and ideas. It falls to the quality of the direction and performances to decide which side of the line the production falls.
To be honest, this attempt didn't quite hold my attention. Though the script and topic are handled assuredly, perhaps the pace is dictated too much by the music and not enough by the emotion.
- reviewed by Robert Iles at the Oxford Playhouse