Deep down in a World War II bunker in Dalston, I sit down at the last supper and become a part of the greatest story ever told. Steven Berkoff’s The Messiah is an interpretation of the last days of Jesus (Graham Dickson) that focuses not upon his divinity, but his humanity.
This debut production from Zebedee Productions transports you past the legends, miracles and controversy of religion. Instead, it keenly feels the story which has inspired faith in millions through the exquisitely human portrayal of its famous figures. David Fairs’s Judas is no longer the villain, but a victim of circumstance, played with the steely isolation of an outsider amongst Jesus’s followers. But – pun intended – a star is born with Graham Dickson who finds so many shades to the son of God, and continues to glow with divine charisma in his every wonky, knowing smile. Suitably, Jesus has competition from Zoe Wellman’s Satan, whose husky voice and playful phrasing are very typical of Satanic characters, and undoubtedly oozes temptation.
The most impressive skill however, is the vocal prowess of the whole cast, particularly Fairs and Dickson. Either as individuals or moving and breathing as a unit, every actor finds and develops a rhythm in Berkoff’s script, tackling The Messiah with relentless energy. This carries the audience from scene to scene so the momentum crescendos towards Jesus’ crucifixion, an agonising performance to watch from Dickson. The impetus the casts put into every word reflects their power to carry through two thousand years and into this play.
Of course, Berkoff being Berkoff, the poetry of these grand scenes is offset by the vulgarity of contemporary language. Berkoff manages to bring the Bible into the twenty-first century by investing it with a sense of reality; betrayal and self-doubt are inherently human characteristics, not romantic ones, with which the audience can identifiy. Jesus, in a very mortal manner, holds a seed of doubt that he’s the son of God. More significantly, our ability to laugh with the dramatic irony of retrospect, ignites a story so well known that it’s arguably become lacklustre and therefore less inspirational.
Zebedee bravely produces The Messiah in the form of a promenade performance, yet never wholly embraces the spirit of this style of theatre. The movement of a large audience through small spaces is organised admirably, but this is exactly what detracts from the audience’s freedom to discover the environment and story by themselves, the primary attraction of promenade performance. Rather, the shifting of scenes to different spaces within the bunker appears to be practical solution to make swift scene changes.
Yet the bunker is a gift of a space, similar to, but more intimate than, the Old Vic Tunnels and should house more theatrical productions like this. The echo of every speech bounces off the walls and strikes as if it were personally directed at you. Dahlia Gellert’s set design uses simple elements: wood, stone, and candles, which is enough to make this cavernous space shiver with the warm yet ominous atmosphere of a church.
Andrew London’s direction is impeccable, but the bunker amplifies that twofold. His production cannot be called unsophisticated because there are no flashy lighting effects or lavish costumes; the cast’s skill speaks for itself in this space, and promises good things to come from Zebedee.
The Messiah played at The Bunker from 15-26 May. For more information about Zebedee Procuctions, visit the website.