Assessing that Jesus

Last night I saw the new Jesus Christ Superstar which is touring arenas around the UK. Ben Forster plays Jesus after being selected through a rather rushed series on ITV in the summer. Some have been critical of his acting but I was quite impressed – and his performance of the challenging ‘Gethsemane’ was outstanding. It must be a daunting role for anyone to take on, demanding high tenor at rock intensity. Not to mention playing someone who was believably a revolutionary, inspiring devotion, passion and dedication as well as provoking panic and violent retribution. Lloyd Webber & Rice’s Jesus isn’t quite the Jesus of the gospels, but some of the audience will want a performance that somehow captures Him as well. That’s a tall order, and Mr Forster should be congratulated on a darned fine effort.

Throughout the show other characters come to their own conclusions of just who this Jesus is. Early on, Judas is getting worried that he’s going too far:

“They think they’ve found the new Messiah
And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong”

To my mind, this is a part Tim Minchin was born to play and he does a fantastic job of showing the range of emotions, conflictions and justifications within the role. His foresight could be called prophetic, although of course he plays a pivotal role in Jesus’ arrest. Superstar’s Judas is a sympathetic character – in many ways the whole show could be seen as apologetics for his actions. His priority: “I just want us to live” is utterly understandable, and yet he is on a collision course with nearly everyone else.

The high priests Caiaphas and Annas are shown observing Jesus and his ‘rabble-rousing mission’ via CCTV images, with imagery bringing to mind both the August 2011 riots and the Occupy movement on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. While Annas is initially more dismissive, Caiaphas declaims in his insanely low tones:

“For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die”

This is lifted closely from John’s gospel, where the apostle points out just how accurate the high priest’s words were. While the priests are agreeing just how dangerous Jesus is, their deliberations are cut across the crowd’s Hosannas, and Simon Zealotes’ more frenzied

“Christ you know I love you, did you see I waved?
I believe in you and God so tell me that I’m saved”

At this point the lyrics were displayed on the big screen and I wondered if the audience/crowd were supposed to be joining in. In such a massive venue it must be difficult to properly engage the crowd – perhaps a much larger cast would have been able to spread around the arena more to actually make sense of Simon’s lines about how “There must be over 50,000 screaming love and more for you”. We were more like 12,000 in Birmingham’s NIA but we were generally pretty quiet. Perhaps we loved Chris Moyles more…

His King Herod (as a games show host) also tried to engage the crowd, inviting us to text in to decide whether Jesus was ‘Lord or Fraud’. His invitations to Jesus to entertain us,

“Walk across my swimming pool”

were met with bewildered silence from Jesus, here pushed around in some sort of dentist’s chair. Disappointed at his refusal to play along, Herod and his gang of showgirls dismiss Jesus as a fraud and send him back to Pilate.

We’ve already seen Pilate struggling to figure Jesus out. Alex Hanson gives real gravitas to the part, understanding some of the potential consequences of the decisions he was being asked to make. In the end his conclusions run to:

“Look at your Jesus Christ.
I’ll agree he’s mad.
Ought to be locked up,
But that is not a reason to destroy him.
He’s a sad little man.
Not a King or God.”

Pilate famously washes his hands of the whole affair, and yet he has Jesus crucified with a sign above his head saying ‘The King of the Jews’ (though we didn’t see that in this version of the cross, too many shiny lights instead).

I’m not sure if the Jesus in this production is supposed to be deluded. One interesting alteration I noted in the lyrics was during ‘Gethsemane’. Instead of crying

“God thy will is hard, but you hold every card”

Jesus sings

“God thy will be done, take your only son”

before continuing with his submission to drinking the cup of poison/suffering and being broken, beaten and killed. Here he seems truly convinced that he is the son of God, removing some of the possibilities of being just the good teacher that Judas wants him to be, or the revolutionary that the priests fear.

By finishing the production with the body of Jesus being taken down from the cross, I guess they leave you to make up your own mind. I know when I first saw the show back in 1996 I was so relieved to believe that wasn’t the end of the story, as it’s a pretty depressing place to stop. Rising from the dead has been argued to be a pretty convincing proof of being God – it’s there in the source material but perhaps the musical has a wider appeal by staying more open to interpretation.

And moving beyond the musical, enjoyable though it was, I guess that’s where I wanted to conclude this blog post. It’s an amazing story, one that has been interpreted by many different artists in very many ways. I wonder what other audience members thought. I wonder what you think. I’ll leave the last question to Matthew’s gospel account:

“But what about you?” [Jesus] asked. “Who do you say I am?”

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