Messiah - Scenes From a Crucifixion, Old Vic, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Presenting Jesus as fully human is not a new idea. But Jesus has never before been the faintly Machiavellian political strategist whom we encounter in Steven Berkoff's play. "The Messiah will never come/ So we have to create one," Christ tells his disciples in this starkly staged reworking of the Gospels. He decides that the only way to bring about the necessary moral revolution is to convince people that he is the divine liberator, which involves fulfilling the predictions of the prophets to the letter.

The really tricky bit will be pulling off the propaganda coup of the resurrection. In Berkoff's reworking, there's the danger that Jesus's ingenious means will upstage his message. "It's gonna be a bastard on the Big X," he declares, ramming together historical purple and East End demotic. It's imperative that the crucifixion is on a Friday afternoon when his body will have to be taken down from the Cross (drugged and still just about alive) so as not to offend against the laws of the Sabbath. "Don't let them break my legs, or I'm really fucked," he warns. "I can't go through all of this again, so blow it not" to which you feel like responding: oh, off it come.

It says a lot for the extraordinary charisma and thrilling delivery of Greg Hicks's Jesus that he manages to glide seamlessly between the sardonic, slightly camp operator and the sincere, inspiring man of absolute ethical conviction. He even emerges with honours from a scene that would otherwise sound like the two-disc Jesus' Greatest Hits album. Berkoff himself turns in an over-long cameo as Satan, a vision of bare arms and black leather. Castigating our wimpy "thin-lipped self-denial", this Satan sounds at times rather like Steven Berkoff having a go at the supposedly anaemic establishment theatre he loathes.

As author, actor and director, he seems to work on the principle that if a thing is worth doing, it's worth overdoing. Fans of his highly physical ensemble work and expressionistic magnification won't feel too shortchanged here as Brendan Hughes's excellent Judas, the reluctant fall guy in the scheme, races to the authorities and to his dreadful destiny by running furiously on the spot like someone going mad in a prison cell. None the less, there is some risible overkill. Pilate's kinkily enraptured account of Jesus' feminine beauty ("My God, he was a lovely creature/ What a waste") is an instance of that exaggerated autoerotic arousal toward which Berkoff's manner is liable to build.

The piece leaves many contradictions unresolved. Hicks's performance, though, is so complex as to give the illusion that the difficulties have been transcended, rather than evaded.

To 3 January (020-7928 7616)