Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s clever rock opera is now approaching its fiftieth birthday, and yet has lost none of its power as it depicts the last few days in the life of Jesus.
This production was first seen at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park a couple of years ago, and has now come indoors with a new principal cast at the Barbican Theatre.
I’m very familiar with the 1973 film, the original concept recording, the 90s stage version (later filmed), and most recently, the arena version.
A pulsing score and thoughtful – if occasionally dated – lyrics bring the story to life, especially the tense relationship between a Jesus who loses confidence as the cult around him grows and a Judas who watches with concern and incredulity until he is compelled to betrayal for thirty pieces of silver.
You know the plot. This production opens with a dancer who almost conjures a feel of black magic, before she is joined by the fervent followers. Judas and Jesus have to have the charisma and powerhouse vocals to carry both the drama and the music, and in Ricardo Afonso and Robert Tripolino those roles are more than adequately filled.
Utilising hand-held microphones which are sometimes passed from one character to another, sometimes used as plot props (bound in the hands of Jesus at trial, thrown down by Pilate, dropped with a long trail of red wire at the death of Judas), sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but it is a different approach to shackling main characters with radio mikes.
Sallay Garnett’s Mary is the strong prostitute you would expect her to be, but I didn’t feel her vulnerability until the trial scenes. Matt Cardle’s Pilate, first seen smoking and crushing a beer can, exudes Roman bravado, but completely breaks under the realisation he’s been used just as much as Judas: his vocals are absolutely fine, too, especially in his final couple of lines.
Also of note are Cavin Cornwall’s menacing and deep-voiced Caiaphas, Samuel Buttery’s drag queen Herod with his long eyelashes, gold cape, and air of genial menace, and Tim Newman’s Simon.
Tom Scutt’s design is deceptively simple – a platform, some arches, galleries for the band to play in and characters to observe from, some trees, and recurring cross motifs which are particularly effective in the temple scene.
Timothy Sheader’s direction and Drew McOnie’s choreography perfectly complement the score, and although I missed the hand-held cameras that used to bring us close to the cruxifiction, there are new innovations I do like, and moments of closeness, clarity and even humour (the freeze frame of the Last Supper) that make this show as relevant as it has ever been.
Two images that stood out for me: Judas with silver paint on his hands after the betrayal, and Jesus being taken from the cross and removing his crown of thorns in a kind of tired and resigned resurrection.
This is an important revival of a modern classic. Jesus Christ Superstar continues at the Barbican until 24 August, and if you’re so inclined, you can see the other Lloyd Webber/Rice musicals in London this summer, with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium, and Evita opening soon in Regent’s Park.
Photo credits Johan Persson.