[Punk Rock Pastoral]
Nathan Joe reports in from Christchurch on The Court Theatre’s summer musical.
The Court Theatre’s annual musical is a long-held tradition and highlight of the Christchurch theatre scene; one that I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing multiple times in the past few years. Following their flawlessly faithful rendition of Chicago and the appropriately frothy Legally Blonde, New Zealand’s longest running professional theatre company celebrates the new year with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
While a staple of the musical theatre canon, director Stephen Robertson and musical director Richard Marrett’s stadium approach to the staging, creating what feels more like an arena than traditional proscenium arch, injects the proceedings with a undeniably rock touch. Harold Moot’s set design and Grant Robertson’s lighting emphasise this approach, staying true to the rock opera’s concept album roots, producing a landscape that is less historical or pastoral and more Max Max dystopia. The choice to have the cast perform with handheld mics is a particularly notable one, bringing focus on the spectacle of the show versus any attempts at masking anything behind the illusion of naturalism. This is a production that prizes performance above all else, and succeeds, smashing through each song and dance number with increasingly greater velocity, barely ever letting up.
I’ve always found the relentless soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar with its threadbare narrative and non-stop songs simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. But the actions and arcs of the characters are played clearly by the cast of this production, that you practically forget that this musical has no book at all. While the treatment of spirituality and religion is rather superficial, what is striking is the central conflict surrounding leadership and betrayal. The fickle and volatile sway of the masses has never been more pertinent than in our current political climate.
As the titular Jesus, understudy Chris McRae, who performed on the night I saw the show, imbues an air of effortlessness charm to the role, belying a softness that no leader can usually afford to express. Too carefree and unsuspecting for his own good, he embodies the lovable, bohemian rendition of Christ that we’ve all come to love.
But it’s the footloose Caleb Jago-Ward as the backstabbing Judas who steals the spotlight, reverberating rock star tragedy in every note and movement. His final moment of self-defeat is an undeniable showstopper that will have you holding your breath. You’re unlikely to see a face so clearly twisted by inner turmoil in a mainstage production all year.
Monique Clementson gives an appropriately soothing performance as Mary Magdalene. While the character is given little more to do than moon over Jesus, the portrayal and weight of her songs ground every moment with real pathos. For a show filled with anger and anguish, Clementson’s portrayal of Mary provides much needed warmth .
James Foster as Pilate also performs with the necessary conflict and gravitas to give the role the required depth and dimension. It’s a significant part that highlights the frustrating and hopeless circumstances the characters are in.
Fergus Inder’s kitschy and grotesque Herod manages confidently stand alongside the tradition of this part, thanks in no small part to director Robertson’s own costume design. It’s unashamedly camp and colourful contrast to the rest of the production’s black and white aesthetic, as he’s surrounded him with a gaggle of Gwen Stefani-esque Harujuku Girls.
The rest of the ensemble are equally impressive, perhaps reaching their pinnacle when they lurch out unexpectedly, as a swarm of lepers desperately grasping for Jesus’s touch.
This is a production unafraid of giving the show a makeover without sacrificing any of the heart in the process. But those seeking spiritual enlightenment should look elsewhere, this is first and foremost a celebration of the church of rock and roll, and one of the Court’s finest efforts in recent years. Amen.
Jesus Christ Superstar plays The Court Theatre , Christchurch in an extended season until 26th January 2019.