Eighteen months ago when Andrew and I first talked about a new production of Jesus Christ Superstar, he showed me a painting by Holbein of the dead Christ laid out on a cold slab. The painting was brutal and deeply moving yet lacked any sense of sentimental romanticism … no elegantly draped arm or light-washed reclining torso, this was a raw and cruel view of death … a private viewing of a man, yet one that conjured greater thoughts. Andrew offered up the picture saying “This is what I think Superstar is really about”. And so we began.
It was immediately obvious that the piece is a powerful work of theatre whose central characters, driven towards their doom by forces they cannot control, have much in common with Shakespeare’s great tragic roles.
Jesus is a unique figure, aware of his destiny and the violent end awaiting him, wishing to avoid it (“Take this cup away from me, for I don’t want to taste its poison”) but bowing to the inevitable.
Although his destruction is ensured by three opponents (Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate) all of them weak men under pressure who made the morally wrong decision for their own reasons, the central relationship of the story in the musical is that between Jesus and Judas.
Investigation in the rehearsal room, with the two actors involved, led us to the belief that both Jesus and Judas are impelled through the events of the story by a God who controls their Fate and uses them as instruments for His higher purpose.
Judas becomes as much a victim of Fate as Jesus does. Both men are friends, intellectual sparring partners, and finally opponents. Both seem to instinctively understand the plight of the other but both are powerless to ease the other’s suffering. And they both suffer: Love and Hate, duty and betrayal, need and blame seem to wrestle in an inevitable dance of death that neither of them can stop.
Around this central relationship swirls a world of characters, skilfully created by a company of 36 actors who were discovered during what felt like endless auditions that took us from Britain to wider Europe and occupied, on and off, nearly a year of our lives.
And then we came up against the question of style. Traditionally a strong dance show, Superstar has a rich and brilliant musical score – and much of it is rock’n’roll! Would this kind of epic storytelling with a psychological investigation of the text, of characters, of relationships, work with numbers that are clearly irresistible rock songs?
I needed a choreographer for whom the word ‘dance’ would be a ‘flexible’ term … and I found a wonderful colleague and collaborator in Aletta Collins. Together we aimed to create a style of playing that would feel physical and athletic, but where dance steps would be at a minimum, and the drama would dictate the onstage action.
And, of course, we also aimed for a sort of earthy simplicity that would do away with the perceived whiz bang technology associated with the big West End musical. John Napier’s elegant, simple, raw arena deliberately contains only two moving elements (and even they are pretty basic!). David Hersey eliminated anything extraneous in the lighting and pursued the simple, clean images that would support the storytelling. Decoration and embellishment were minimised wherever possible.
There are many ways of interpreting Jesus Christ Superstar on stage (as there are with any major classical work – and Superstar is a major classic!). This is our version. We set out to illustrate man’s essential humanity in a production where the politics against which the action is played out – the clash between public and private responsibilities – would be of prime importance, and where the tragic human dilemma of the characters would become accessible to a modern day audience who would hopefully recognise contemporary forces which operate in our own world.
Gale Edwards – on the Lyceum Theatre Production
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