‘Captivating writing & strong acting’: THE MESSIAH COMPLEX – VAULT Festival

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Vault Festival, London – until 19 March 2023
Guest reviewer: Diana Miranda

A blend of Orwell’s 1984 and the American Horror Story TV series, The Messiah Complex is a dystopian thriller that explores the extremes of conflicting belief systems. It takes place in a society where religion is banned and treated as a mental illness, and those who oppose scientific dogma are prosecuted without scruples. Sethian, a prophet who grapples with inner conflict, is held captive in a complex where a scientist – someone really between a nurse and a political propagandist – attempts to correct his behaviour. If Sethian fails to cooperate, the complex’s ‘administrators’ threaten to erase his memory of Sophia, his partner and fellow leader in a revolutionary movement.

Bag of Beard’s production creates an unsettling atmosphere from the beginning. As audiences take their seats, a kneeling Sethian sways on stage with vacant eyes, evidently upset yet calm. A stripe of white light encircles him outlining a large square in the middle of the stage, like a fairy ring or, rather, a prison. The show’s soundscape and music, composed by James Demaine and Samuel Heron, seem to reach us from an unseen phonograph, adding a vintage feel. Charles Flint’s video design also contributes to the sinister tone through old-looking video projections whose flickering images depict hand-typed quotes such as ‘That which is not proven, is not reality’, as well as scenes of people staring intensely or screaming. As the show moves forward, the video’s stylistic touches add drama to it and help the script’s frequent time jumps flow seamlessly.

The performances are visceral and powerful. All three actors outline their characters neatly, suggesting a mysterious depth to each of them. AK Golding’s Sophia is alluring and poised, Anthony Cozens’ Sethian is stubborn yet playful, and Sasha Clarke’s nurse is a sharp contrast with their hostile, condescending tone. Cozens’ portrayal of Sethian is peppered with subtle but punchy comedic lines in surprising moments, watering down the other characters’ self-righteousness with a lighthearted, ironic touch. There’s a sense of scripted spontaneity in these occurrences that hints at the devised nature of the piece, scripted and directed by Alexander Knott, James Demaine and Ryan Hutton, with additional devising by the company.

A noteworthy aspect is how the script is its portrayal of both sides of the issue. Those driven by science dismiss literature, and the nurse employs straightforward communication. Faith, on the other hand, is intertwined with lyrical language. Sophia has an ethereal manner and a soft voice, like embodied poetry, while Sethian is quick with literary and musical references, from The Beatles to Dostoyevsky to J.R.R. Tolkien. They are both skilled in storytelling and poetic imagery and deliver beautifully metaphorical passages throughout. This is probably why the Administrators deal with adversaries, namely Sethian, by blocking their dreams, the ultimate metaphorical realm.

The show lays out religion and science as opposing views, painting a bleak picture of both ends of what really is a spectrum. While the approach involves scenes of psychological and physical abuse, these are handled in such a way that audiences are not put in a position of discomfort. However, the plot relies on clichéd scenarios of political radicalisation and religious fundamentalism for shock value. In that regard, the story’s intriguing premise would be more original if it explored these controversial and thought-provoking themes with a fresh perspective, adding to its captivating writing and strong acting.

Ultimately, The Messiah Complex explores the different shapes of devotion, be it to science, a deity or a lover. It dissects a discussion that explores the intricacies of radical thinking, wherever it may lean towards, and leaves the question of righteousness open for audiences to mull over.

The Messiah Complex runs through 19 March.

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