Review by Harry Bower
What would happen if in the next one hundred years laws introduced by government prohibited faith and outlawed the worship of any god or higher power, and instead enforced a set of rules on society which only endorsed fact and science as truth? That is the question which in no small way Bag of Beard explore in their latest production, The Messiah Complex.
The result is a show so dark in subject matter it requires a whole string of content warnings before you enter, and even those warnings hadn’t fully prepared me for the psychological thriller I was about to witness. Now, that might make it sound like the whole thing is edge-of-your-seat, nail biting drama. That’s not true. In fact, the intelligent writing and sensitively nuanced performances sort of lull the audience into a false sense of security with some really effective character development and storytelling arcs punctuated by the more dramatic and confronting scenes which are peppered toward the end of the narrative.
Sethian (Anthony Cozens) and Sophia (AK Golding) are two folks entrapped by a society which prohibits their instinctive faith. Forced to bunker down and hide their prayer and black-market religious text collection, they live in a world with no Tolkien, no Harry Potter. With fiction not stacking up as fact, those books too have been burned just like the Bible and the Quran. This is the future though, and while book-burning might still be in fashion, technology has very much moved on. Those caught breaking the law can find themselves locked up with devices used to prevent them dreaming, thinking, even remembering their loved ones.
The play jumps frequently back and forth between present day and the past, the audience piecing together Sethian’s backstory one scene at a time. Present day Sethian is locked away in what appears to be an asylum for ‘believers’, and is undergoing a version of conversion therapy – a sycophantic nurse (Sasha Clarke) keeping a watchful eye and encouraging him to admit the errors of his ways. His missteps are punished, and progress rewarded. Past Sethian battles with his jealousy for those close to Sophia as he is dragged further into more extreme religious beliefs.
There is a wonderful parallel drawn in the narratives of both Sethian and the Nurse on their separate journeys, both in their own way being hoodwinked by those leading, both somewhat blindly following instruction and placing their faith in something more. The dialogue throughout the piece is sharp, full of depth, sometimes poetic in its structure. At times the wordiness was too much even for me, someone who has a high tolerance for endless monologues, though this was thankfully kept to a minimum thanks to superb pacing. The sixty-five minutes or so flew by in the click of a finger, building to a crescendo as each layer and misdirect is revealed.
The Messiah Complex is a triple-hander, performed by three outstanding actors delivering performances of very high quality. Golding’s Sophia is psychotic at first glance, but played with a calming and almost enchanting charm which adds credence to the character’s ability to convince her partner of dark deeds which need undertaking. Clarke’s Nurse character is equally tormented and torn – you can see it in the eyes of the performer – there is a raw emotion and vulnerability on display which feels appropriate, despite the character needing to be steely and determined under the watchful eye of their boss. This vulnerability manifests itself in her interactions with Sethian; the chemistry between both Clarke and Cozens is magic. Cozens as Sethian is on-stage for the entire show switching seamlessly between past and present. Dealing with constant change in the emotional wellbeing of his character, a hugely challenging depiction of violence, and the need to give Sethian some redeeming traits – he is phenomenal. A performance like Cozens’ reminds you of the beauty there is to be found in acting. It is a masterclass.
The play makes use of some basic but very effective multimedia. A projection screen adds depth to the set design, a thin LED lighting strip indicates a change between asylum and the past, old books and cardboard boxes clash with modern props and set to enhance the feeling of these two worlds colliding. The multi-layered character development is complimented by a suitably aggressive lighting design, used purposefully throughout to great impact. An original soundtrack completes the audience’s immersion into this weird and confronting world the writers have built.
Honestly, I was torn watching this show. Objectively it is a stunning piece of theatre with outstanding performances and a distinctive writing style. Personally, I found it a difficult watch. The story is so far removed from normality and characters taken to such extremes that not only does it have the potential to make the audience uncomfortable, it is also tough to warm to them. It strikes me that while theatre might be the most accessible way to explore the beginnings of this tale, it has a bigger future than fringe. I can see it as a novel, television series, or film.
The Messiah Complex is exactly that; complex. It has more layers than an onion and as each is peeled away it confronts and captivates its audience with its inventive and rich storytelling. With some deeper character development and wider context about the circumstances which led to ‘the experiments’ this story could be a masterpiece.
The Messiah Complex plays at VAULT Festival (Network Theatre) until Sunday 19 March 2023. Find out more: https://vaultfestival.com/events/the-messiah-complex-by-bag-of-beard-theatre/
For more by Bag of Beard Theatre visit https://www.bagofbeard.co.uk/.