Maybe it’s silly, but for me, there is very little in theatre that matches the pure pleasure of a really imaginative, surprising bit of design—and Timothy Sheader’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar (which first premiered at Open Air Theatre last year) is so packed with them, I could almost narrate you through the play using them as a guide. Where large-scale musicals often rely on garish, ostentatiously expensive visuals, like revolves and elaborate projections, Tom Scutt’s design hits a simpler and therefore more delightful note. It’s cheeky without smugness, like the Roman soldiers’ masks, which are white replicas of a bust of Caesar. It blends the clever and the practical, like the Pharisees’ staffs: imposing, spiked—and, when spun around to reveal microphones stuck to the bottom, perfect for high-tempo rock plotting. And sometimes it’s just simply gorgeous, like what they use for Judas’s silver, which don’t want to spoiler —or elaborate and gorgeous, like King Herod’s entrance costume, about which my notes just read ‘OMG’. Swathes of amber light (designed by Lee Curran) cut through the beams of Scutt’s corroded metal set, the colour of a perfect summer evening.
Simply pleasurable, too, is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock score, brought to full-throated life by a cast of powerhouse vocalists. Drew McOnie’s rhythmic, muscular choreography pulses like a heartbeat in the background of almost every number, complementing the high-energy songs. The sung-through music just works, an impressionistic collage of moments from the final days of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the sound isn’t well-balanced, rendering some of the lyrics difficult to understand—which is a problem, because the plot really is more complicated than all those ballads might suggest. Webber’s famed for his emotive scores, but Rice’s lyrics are thoughtful, too.
Which is where the ‘but’ to the very pleasurable evening comes in: it’s such a fun night, so fun to watch, but it doesn’t plumb the score’s full depths and complexities. Rice and Webber’s narrative is fundamentally a revisionist one—or so it seems to me, a non-Christian who was so baffled by the 1973 film when I caught on TV one time in high school that I avoided the show entirely for years after. In it, the question of Jesus’s divinity is resolutely slippery: is he walking a path already foreseen? Or do his premonitions of death only come from reading the volatile political situation as accurately as the wavering Judas, his prophecies from knowing the character of his friends? Is he a god, or just a celebrity?
In Sheader’s production, Jesus and Judas feel like men on parallel paths, each building to the moment when they realise their path is set. It’s certainly set in the set: there are crosses everywhere, from a massive one used as a ramp down the centre of the set, popping up in odd places in the design, especially, ironically, in the Temple. The awareness of what is to come is never far from sight. This imposing sense of fate compounds the sense that the characters aren’t quite people. The heart of Rice and Webber’s revision is to double down on character, not on fate, but this production reverses the feeling: though the leads are all powerful singers, the characters never feel like they quite connect with each other (and there’s a disappointing lack of tenderness in that famous last kiss), and Robert Tripolino’s inscrutable Jesus and Ricardo Afonso’s gloomy Judas tear the hell out of their solos, but are more impressive with their vocal pyrotechnics than with the depth of thought or feeling they mine from the songs. The exception is Matt Cardle’s tortured Pilate, a highlight of the second act. Like the design, the display of skill is in itself pleasurable. But. The combination of the two, the heaviness of fate and the lightness of character makes it all feel really… Christian?
I know, I know. That shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise. But with the humanity stripped away—with the delightful images, the pulsing, inexorably forward-moving music and dance, it feels like something like ‘The Last Supper,’ which they cheekily recreate—like an old religious icon. Its beauty and brutality are designed not to remind you not of Jesus’s humanity, but of his divinity. Rice and Webber’s story on the other hand, has humanity at its heart.
Jesus Christ Superstar is on at the Barbican Theatre until 24th August. More info and tickets here.