It was a warm, sunny, delightful August afternoon. Marylebone Road was busy, and the queue for Madame Tussauds was long but not unreasonably so. My sister Rhoda and I were meeting our cousins outside Baker Street station. They were either late, we were early, or we’d not been specific enough about which entrance to meet. I suspect the latter.
We soon saw them looking light, full of smiles and clad in summer attire. It was Steph’s birthday, and we were celebrating, but really it was all about Jesus Christ Superstar.
What’s the buzz?
Tell me what’s a-happening
Among our group are two fanatical Superstar devotees. Rhoda and Janice know all the songs, probably due to some childhood revolt or school production that seared a love of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice Rock Opera in their brains. Steph had never seen it, and I was a latecomer to the piece, having watched the movie rendering sometime in my late 20s.
The early years
Personally, I understood Jesus Christ Superstar as a controversial work. I come from a deeply religious family and vaguely remember patriarchial disapproval towards Webber and his work. The play is (even to this day) seen as blasphemous, and I recently discovered that many theatres that staged the play were firebombed. Protesters regularly picketed outside playhouses and movie theatres where it was showing. Cecil B. DeMille’s depictions of Christ were acceptable in our house, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s were not.
I never much bothered with it until one of my best friends persuaded me to watch it, citing the work as the reason why she was able to connect with Christianity more personally.
I remember us watching the film in the middle of a peaceful Sunday afternoon. Her boyfriend at the time was with us. He had an uncertain relationship with his version of Christianity, but that’s an entirely different post. A little ambivalent after the viewing, but surprised at how much I enjoyed aspects of the movie, not necessarily for the plot or the calibre of the acting talent, but the interpretation and the switch in perspective. Carl Anderson’s portrayal of Judas Iscariot, the protagonist of this piece, was excellent and heartfelt. Who can forget the figure clad head to toe in red and that voice, so powerful, so pained. The musical score and the songs were the standouts.
Open air anticipation
How would the play compare to what we had seen and knew? As we descended into our seats, snacks, champagne flutes and a bottle of prosecco in hand, the anticipation of the packed house was tangible.
One of the exceptional things you get with each production at the Open Air Theatre is the set is there for you to examine in close-up detail before anyone takes to the stage. It adds to the anticipation. There is no sitting gazing at a curtain, so you can look it over and imagine what each section is for or what meaning you can garner from its look and feel.
In this production, the set looks like it’s constructed of steel girders welded (or bolted, I assume) together into a framework over a raised ground, first and second stories. It’s like the skeleton of a dwelling where you can see the floors, but it has neither walls nor windows. There are two of these constructions. Sandwiched between them is a raised walkway that is shaped like a cross.
The second floor is exposed to the elements, and it is from this perch that the show starts. A single guitarist plucks the intro to Heaven On Their Minds. I must admit I had my ‘rock face’ on and was playing air guitar while attempting to balance a glass of prosecco. As those first few notes echoed over our heads out into the treetops, it’s fair to say we were entranced.
Jesus Christ Superstar is essentially the chronicle of Jesus’ last week alive, where at the outset, he is heralded as a Messiah and the ‘King of the Jews’ by the ordinary people of Jerusalem. The Pharisees (sort of religious overloads) see this man as a problem and decide that he must die, colluding with one of Jesus’ disciples to render him away from public scrutiny. Meanwhile, Jesus participates in the last supper with his apostles, gets betrayed by Judas, one of his principal brethren, is interrogated by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who decided - this problem is not for me - and palmed him off to Herod, the sort of actual Jewish king.
Herod, who was engaged in living the hi-life and shirker that he was, duly passed the problem straight back to Pilate, who, exasperated by the fact he could find Jesus guilty of no crime, tried to appease the baying horde by flogging Jesus to within an inch of his life. This was not enough for the plebeians that had gone from regarding Jesus as a Messiah to viewing him as a charlatan or worse (it is not clear why) and clamoured for him to be crucified.
That’s a lot for one person to cope with!
Watching the show, I was fully immersed in the storytelling; the songs and the choreographed ensemble numbers were compelling. I found myself caught up in the elation of Hosanna (one of the few I remember from school days), the hauntingly beautiful emotion of I Don’t Know How To Love Him and swayed perilously to the Apostles’ harmonious, if slightly tipsy renditions within The Last Supper, seemingly oblivious to the massive fight going on between Jesus and Judas.
When your mates let you down
Declan Bennet plays Jesus, Tyrone Huntley plays Judas, while the part of Mary Magdelene is played by Anoushka Lucas. Jesus’ crew, clad in yoga pants, tunics and hoodies, serve to further contemporize this production. The ensemble mixed and matched to form the broader group of apostles, Jerusalem crowds, and I’m sure I spotted a couple as Pharisees.
Although crew, one of these same disciples, betrays Jesus to the authorities, one denies he even knows him. The rest aren’t much good at saving their Lord, although it’s fair to say that Jesus did stop them from getting into a fracas with the arresting officers as he was led away.
Always hoped that I’d be an apostle
Knew that I would make it if I tried
Then, when we retire, we can write the gospels
So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died
In an eerie, chilling climax to the show, Judas, racked with guilt, with hands stained with the treacherous silver of his betrayal, hangs himself from atop one of the girders.
As Jesus uttered his final lament and his spirit left his body, the breeze wafting within the amphitheatre died away with him.
We came away from the play that day wishing we’d booked tickets for the evening performance, such was the quality of this production’s writing, artistry, choreography and direction. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you get a chance, the show is well worth your time.
Top drawer entertainmentRegent's Park Open Air Theatre / Photo: David Jensen