Given the air of danger Steven Berkoff brings to his roles - not to mention the sulphurous air of many of the characters he has played on stage and screen - one might think the actor was born to play the ultimate villain, Satan. He does so - surprisingly, with reluctance - in Messiah: Scenes from a Crucifixion, which opens at the Old Vic and dramatises the last weeks of Christ's life on Earth.
As the writer and director of Messiah, Berkoff offers up the idea not only that Christ may have planned his own death and resurrection, rather than having been a victim of Rome, as the Bible would have us believe, but also that the Twelve Disciples cleaved to him because they were starstruck, and not for any more profound reason.
"But I didn't think Satan was the part for me," says Berkoff. "That's why I chose not to play it in the first place. I wanted to step outside it, because when you are directing, all your thoughts are for others and your own self is unimportant; in that respect, you are, in a way, expressed through the others. But when you are performing, you start thinking about you all the time. It becomes a conflict."
There were, Berkoff admits, commercial considerations that led to his undertaking the role of Satan. He may be one of the enduring stars of British theatre and have enjoyed a high-profile film sideline, but Berkoff admits it was difficult finding a theatre to put on his play. "To get interest from the major institutions is like climbing up a mountain with no shoes on," he says.
Despite receiving good reviews after its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival three years ago, and then touring Europe, there was still no response to Messiah from the major theatres. "I had to leave it for a while," says Berkoff. In the past few years, I was doing a lot on the fringe again and doing lots of crappy independent movies, but our company manager, Andrew Taylor, believed in Messiah so much that he fought for it with the ardour of a real disciple. He said this must be seen. He found the Old Vic had a space and we did it independently, which is usually what I do."
Having finally found a suitable venue, Messiah's prospects look healthy. Vidal Sassoon, an old friend of Berkoff's, is helping to produce, and Greg Hicks, who was last seen at the Old Vic in the summer as Coriolanus, takes the part of Christ. The cast also includes John Coyne as John the Baptist, Brendan Hughes as Judas, Michael Jenn as Pontius Pilate and Ray Sawyer as Caiphus.
Berkoff, of course, is the Great Seducer, who "appeals to the audience's own sense of what is Satanic in them. It is a play directly from my heart and gut, and I think it will reverberate with people, especially in the times we are going through. We need a belief in something beyond our own greedy selves."
Old Vic, London SE1 (0870 060 6628); previews from 25 NovemberReuse content