Reviews: Steven Berkoff’s Messiah and other Edinburgh Festival reviews

Messiah, Assembly Rooms; Barbaric Comedies, King’s; Don Juan, Royal Lyceum; A Large Attendance in the Antechamber, Assembly Rooms; Voices, Traverse:

Steven Berkoff is the kind of provocative, intelligent and skilled dramatist whose work people flock to Edinburgh to see. His new play, Messiah (Scenes from a Crucifixion), more than justifies his reputation. A compelling reconstruction of the events which gave birth to the pernicious myth of Jewish collective responsibility for Christ’s crucifixion, it is an exceptional dramatic exploration of the origins of anti-Semitism. From a poisonously cynical Pilate’s symbolic washing of his – and Rome’s – hands of Jesus’s blood, to the political motivation of a humanised, revolutionary Christ, the playwright has created an explosive, satirical and powerfully persuasive new narrative.

Before you hear a single word of the wonderfully muscular script, you are struck by the sheer visual beauty of the play. The Renaissance simplicity of the costumes and set, and the subtlety of the lighting give every scene the exquisite appearance of a Caravaggio painting. The rich, absorbing language of Berkoff’s poetic and penetratingly modern text is the power behind an extraordinary aesthetic. He punctuates the story of his alternative Christ with brilliantly written explicatory monologues, smart set-pieces which nonetheless create a slight structural jaggedness that is detrimental to the play’s pace.

Attending the central characters is a supporting chorus (variously boorish Roman centurions, Palestine’s Jewish masses and Christ’s groupie-like disciples) which is employed to tremendous dramatic and visual effect. Rory Edwards is strong as the complex, rebellious Jesus, while Tam Dean Burn is outstanding as a deliciously contemporary Satan. Executed with an irresistible theatrical confidence, Messiah reaffirms Berkoff as one of the most original and sophisticated voices on the British stage.

If Christianity is asked some searching questions at the Assembly Rooms, over at the King’s it, or its Catholic element at least, is taking something of a bruising. The Abbey Theatre’s vast, sprawling adaptation of Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan’s Barbaric Comedies presents a beautiful and brutal image of imploding feudalism and decomposing Catholicism.

Armed with Frank McGuinness’s ambitious and scholarly new script, Ireland’s national theatre company recreates Valle-Inclan’s brooding, disquieting, rebellious Spain. This is the Spain of Goya and Lorca, a nation which unmasks the violence of its history with a grotesque and graceful ferocity.

The family of the lecherous, narcissistic landowner Don Juan Manuel de Montenegro is at war. The fallen nobleman is in conflict with a deeply corrupt, hypocritically sanctimonious Church. His sons descend into a bestial rampage of sexual and material theft. A bloody inquisitorial superstition lords it over the ensuing chaos.

The terrible humour and burgeoning savagery of the story demand the most technically and emotionally accomplished of performances. The Abbey’s universally excellent cast, and Mark Lambert’s undeniable, towering Don Juan in particular, provide them. Alfons Flores’s Bible-black stage and astounding, mechanised set are appropriately menacing.

It was inevitable that this four hour production (which is half the length of the original play) would occasionally lose its shape and its narrative thread. Nonetheless, director Calixto Bieito has created an appalling, ungainly and captivating theatrical colossus.

As Valle-Inclan’s blood-red rendering of the Spanish classic took up residence at the King’s, the Lyceum was seeing a rather different Don Juan dance onto its stage. Under the direction of the acclaimed choreographer and dramatist Mats Ek, Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre offers a less satanic, more post-modern libertine.

Mikael Persbrandt’s sumptuously mischievous Don Juan is, for sure, an odious example of machismo, but he is also a masked schoolboy playing Zorro. His performance, like Ek’s production, is a fabulous montage of bawdiness, kitsch and, somewhat surprisingly, poignance. Despite the piece’s humour and lightness of touch, there is something profound in the rich reprobate sitting in front of a television talking about the victory of hypocrisy over all other human values.

Both Ek’s directing and Goran O Eriksson’s creative translation of Moliere’s text play with our sense of time and place. The hilariously lurid set may be the location of such signs of modernity as a porn mag and a vacuum cleaner, but Jan Waldekranz’s outrageous Don Carlos is a moustachioed parody of a spaghetti western Latino gunslinger. A breezy production with plenty of room for the excellence of Ek’s trademark physical movement, this is not one of the festival’s most challenging productions, but it is one of the more pleasurable.

From the grand in scale to a pair of outstanding single-performer Fringe productions. Brian Lipson’s startlingly unusual A Large Attendance in the Antechamber emanates from his ambivalent fascination with Francis Galton, the Victorian thinker behind the portentous ‘science’ of eugenics. It is, however, no work of mere theatrical biography.

We have Galton making a delightful protest against the shortcomings of his “representative” (the actor) and of the dramatic illusion itself. The writer/performer, for his part, wrestles with the contradictions of a man condemned as a religious heretic in his own day and seen as a father of Fascism in ours. Lipson’s great achievement is to turn his essentially academic interest into a humorous, entertaining and stimulating work of theatre. Unafraid to explore the more circuitous routes of Galton’s thought, not above some neatly wrought slapstick, he has succeeded in fusing the most unlikely elements into an enthrallingly eccentric performance.

The set, a miniaturised Victorian study with a panoply of period lights and props, is as impressive as the play itself. Conceptually unique, this is truly one of the festival’s unexpected pleasures.

Theatregroep Hollandia’s Voices, on the other hand, arrived burdened by expectation and is a sharp-witted, satirical success. Jeroen Willems brings texts by Pasolini and speeches by Shell corporation chairman Cor Herkstroter together in a scintillating indictment of late capitalism.

The scene is the dishevelled aftermath of a bourgeois dinner party. A nervous, painfully diffident guest reflects with half-intended irony on the catastrophes of the global market before Willems transmogrifies into the next in the series of Pasolini creations and, finally, Herkstroter himself. An Italian capitalist and his subservient sidekick make plain the terrible, faceless power of multinationals, a grotesque, willing caricature of female sexual submissiveness tells a tale of Faustian self-interest, and our real -life bourgeois attempts to hide all behind a pseudo-philosophical PR gloss. Willems presents these mind-spinning, mutually conflicting logics with a virtuoso performance of intellectual and theatrical gymnastics. He imbues each of his characters with a consummate, if parodic, believability. Having honed his material into a splendidly complete script, he constructs the piece with a facial and physical expressiveness which is, ultimately, as significant as his verbal dexterity.

If we are, indeed, living in a ‘post-ideological’ age, no-one told Theatregroep Hollandia. A fact for which Fringe audiences should be thankful.

These reviews were originally published in Scotland on Sunday on 20 August 2000

© Mark Brown


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