FOR those of us in our young 20’s when the Jesus Christ Superstar album came out in 1970 ahead of the stage show, this was exciting, iconoclastic stuff.
Just three years earlier the musical Hair had literally rocked the establishment. So confident were we in our safe, inherited certainties that we kicked over the traces and shocked our elders in every area of life with no thought for consequences. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll became the new norm as we courted disapproval dressed in our flares, mini-skirts, flamboyant shirts and kaftans.
“Context is all,” as Margaret Atwood famously wrote. Those musicals, so confrontational fifty years ago, had their day; times moved on. Yet both Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar are now being revisited in London.
The answer must lie in contemporary, rather than historical context. Nick Huntington, Director of Drama and Theatre, took on this musical 10 years ago as Actor in Residence. When asked how he felt about this production compared with his previous one, his reply was, effectively, “That was then, this is now.”
This production was “now” in no uncertain terms. The huge screen at the back of the stage, flanked by two smaller screens at the sides were frequently used to depict real contemporary news, complete with newsreaders and rolling headlines and footage of noisy, rioting mobs with heavy-handed police, fires and destruction. Throughout the show there were reporters, desperate to catch the moment and jostling for sound-bites, with instantaneous relay onto the screens, providing subliminal comparison with the current news on our TVs at home. The audience was in no doubt about contemporary relevance.
In the musical, Jesus was placed in his rightful historical context (1st century Palestine under Roman occupation) where he was adopted by some led by Simon Zealotes as a potential figurehead for uprising. The atmosphere was dangerously unstable, with an undercurrent of discontent and revolution. Freddie Bowles in his padded gilet adopted an impressively aggressive, thuggish stance, referencing the violence of the modern far right, whilst also providing the Zealots’ rationale for liberation.
The Roman governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, played by Alfie Peckham, was a tall, leather-coated, threatening figure in Nazi-style military costume. Alone on the stage for his dramatic number recounting his dream, he described his anxiety concerning Jesus’ following getting out of hand – for which he would get the blame, whichever way he sided. This explained to some extent his subsequent horrifying cruelty, although he not merely condoned but also personally contributed to the torture of Jesus (unflinchingly enacted on stage by Pilate’s alarmingly realistic guards Orlando Squires, Solomon Boon, Audrey Raines and Henry Bullivant) a scene with echoes of the Iraq war of hooding and of torture still rife in prisons and interrogation centres. This production was concerned to emphasise the cruelty of a cruel story, but the horrifying violence was never gratuitous. Again, context is all.
In the biblical Passion accounts, the traditionalist religious leaders of the Jews themselves do not come out well either. Their guilt lay in urging the Roman authorities to act against Jesus in order to keep a grip on their control and to hang on to such power as they possessed. The Sanhedrin council were here satirically portrayed in scarlet robes and bald, tattooed skull caps. Caiaphas, the High Priest, and Annas were played, and sung, very successfully by Joshua Jackson and Emily Hamilton-Bing (in this counter tenor role) and they were joined in Council meetings by the Priests who – now this came as a surprise on reading the programme! – they turned out to be the same actors/singers as the Roman guards (see above). Similar flexibility was also seen in the multiple roles taken on by very many in the cast. All credit to the Director and the students’ acting powers that this worked so well.
Tim Rice’s libretto is certainly of its time not just in its attitudes but in its assumption that everyone knew the New Testament story and did not need narrative explanations; the drama hurtles on with abruptly dislocated scene changes. The sheer pace of this performance rightly allowed us no time to wish for developments or connections that are not supplied. Extremely efficient, technically faultless, scene changes carried us with headlong momentum as one dramatic situation was replaced by another. This focused attention on the central concern: the characters of Mary Magdalene, Judas and Jesus.
Francesca Bisson as Mary Magdalene was superb. Her musicality and her acting complemented each other in her utterly convincing characterisation. With provocatively hitched-up long skirt and auburn braids she was the archetypal ‘scarlet woman’, vilified yet sought out by male society, a social outcast deliberately befriended by Jesus, to the disapproval particularly of Judas. Francesca’s energy never flagged and her stage presence and focus were always compelling. Her bewilderment at the new type of love that Jesus opened up to her (“I don’t know how to love him”) was haunting. All in all, it was a truly memorable performance.
On Wednesday night, Jesus was played by John Paul Gilbey. My apologies go to Charlie Watson: I was not able to attend on the nights that Charlie was taking the part. I am sure he was magnificent as well. Although the first half would not have required the ‘job share’, there is no way that a single actor of school age, could cope emotionally with five performances in four days of the second half. As it was, it was hard to believe that it was a student production, such was the quality of the show. The tone of joyful euphoria among the crowd at the start (“Hosanna”) darkens as the tragedy develops. John Paul gained in stature as the drama progressed: his awareness of having started on something he gradually realised he could not deliver or properly understand was sensitively portrayed. The moving scene (“Poor Jerusalem”) when the blind and crippled crawl and clamour for his healing showed him overwhelmed at being unable to help the unending numbers of suffering people. Jesus often reveals his uncertainty and confusion, especially regarding his death. Furthermore, we are provided throughout with doubts about Jesus’ divinity (“He’s just a man”). This is essentially (theologically) the most shocking aspect of the whole musical since the issue is left open at the end.
The Disciples (including two girls to update the historically male group) showed uncomprehending affection for their leader from the outset. Having no clue that discipleship would end up involving what it eventually did, the drunken last supper displayed their innocence in the face of the enormity of the situation. Simon Peter (Peter Lonsdale) had an individual role at the arrest of Jesus and a significant one with his denial during the trial. Victoria Davis featured as the Woman by the Fire in that scene.
The darkness of the stage and the emotional content of many scenes was mitigated in both halves by two bright, brash, up-beat numbers. In the first part, the Temple was exposed with all its sleazy, avaricious, gambling activities as a flashing casino, with red-light sex dens at each side of the stage indicating its underbelly of corruption. The main stage was brilliantly lit and noisy. Fast moving images on the screens indicated the attraction of distraction that such places offer. Mention should be made here of the fantastic band (Musical Director and conductor: Peter B North), drawn from students and music staff, thanks to whose high technical skills the professionalism of the whole production was assured. Music and Drama came together for an unforgettable theatrical experience.
The equivalent scene in the middle of the second half was one of brilliant gold lighting and high camp humour and it came as welcome light relief. King Herod, played by Jamie Layfield, revelled in his role. Dressed in a shimmering gold cat suit, he gyrated and posed while his bevy of gold-sequinned dancers charlestoned their way in perfect synchronicity and high spirits behind him. At the end he stripped off his top half to leave just his gold tie on his chest, to the manifest delight of the audience. The dancers, captained by Victoria Davis, were wonderful throughout the show, acting while dancing, never flagging, often funny, sometimes raunchy, always eye-catching and perfectly disciplined. Congratulations to them and to the choreographer Natasha Hobbs.
Finally, to the anti-hero, Judas Iscariot. With no role-share, I don’t know where Alexander Layfield will find the high-octane energy that he brings to this extremely demanding role for the rest of the run; yet I have no doubt that he will. Set impossibly high vocally, he made the artistic decision to power out the volume regardless of where the pitch sat in his voice. This produced realistic displays of raw anger and frustration. He took his audience with him every moment he appeared on stage. Charismatic in his dreadlocks and leather, with lithe, sinuous movement, he was a perfect foil to Jesus and, as is the way of such things since story-telling began, was in danger of upstaging the hero. This was a key part of the musical’s original, and to many shocking, conception. We witness the well-intentioned motives involved in Judas’ betrayal and identify with his attempts to claw back some self-respect – too late. Nowadays we are more prepared to at least sympathise with his human frailty than was the case in the historical demonising of his part in the story. But betrayal is betrayal, and Judas’ contorted logic that he was caught up in the story against his will as a necessary agent and would be “Damned [by Christians] for all time” is never explored within the text of his song. However, sympathise we undoubtedly do. He was a towering presence on the stage and his suicidal hanging was another example of the terrifying realism of this production.
The acting by John Paul Gilbey throughout the second half, building up to and including the crucifixion, was a moving and powerful experience. Indeed, it felt wrong to applaud the numbers (apart from Herod’s) from Gethsemane on, and yet one wanted to praise the performances. After so much realistic violence, I had to wonder how the crucifixion would provide the climax of the production in an appropriate manner.
uch was dependent upon the magnificent lighting which created mood and emotion so effectively. Sound and technical wizardry were handled flawlessly. The set design was very creative. The Hayward Theatre lay-out was reversed so that the audience faced the entrance doors, having entered by the side fire exit. A large stage was constructed with four steps across the front of it providing additional areas of movement. It was of sufficient height to accommodate the rising table beneath (for the Council and the Last Supper) and a rising central structure. Scaffolding both sides added useful and visually interesting height. Impressively, the set was constructed by students as well as staff in what was clearly a huge joint endeavour. The cross, designed by Patrick Carberry, was undertaken by the Design and Engineering Department. It was strong but not massive, and the logistics of its construction and its rising securely into position must have taken some doing.
The final image was of the utterly vulnerable human corpse of Jesus whose flesh was further emphasised by the black clothing of his disciples bearing hm away from a now jet-black stage. We were left with total darkness but for five dazzlingly white searchlight beams focused on the cross, which yielded to small white lights framing its outside edges. It was an emotionally powerful ending that satisfied and spoke where words could not.
All praise to a totally committed cast too many to mention individually but who acted their hearts out as disciples, reporters, crowds, mobsters, merchants, even angels (in the ironic “Superstar”). Everyone involved in this collaborative production – including crew, backstage, coaching, musicians, costumes, props – ALL contributed to a spectacular and gripping event. Thank you all, and very many congratulations.