I had no idea that a super-sized Jesus Christ Superstar could work so well. The version that filled the O2 Arena last weekend was updated to modern dress: the apostles were recast as hoodie-wearing Occupy protesters in dreadlocks, and the Pharisees as an Illuminati-style cabal; the expulsion of the money-lenders from the temple was reset in a nightclub called The Temple; slogans such as “Rome Lies!” and “Follow The 12!” were daubed on walls and placards.
But it would be an empty spectacle without Tim Minchin. He alone is flat-out extraordinary as Judas; it’s the most passionate performance I have seen in a musical (as well as, on a technical note, the clearest diction). And it’s Judas who has always fascinated me in JSC: the idea that he was a dupe of the divine plan, a patsy set up by God for a pre-destined betrayal, with Jesus’s reluctant consent.
Actually, the South American short story master Borges went further in Ficciones (1944), positing that Jesus had it easy. A little whipping and torture, followed by death on the cross, in exchange for eternal life and the hosannaed worship of millions? Sweet. Whereas Judas, for his part in the drama, is reviled across the ages, his very name becoming a byword for betrayal. Borges’ story argues that Judas, not Jesus, was the son of God; the one who made the true, unheralded sacrifice.
And then there’s Jesus. He is, we are told, God made flesh; as human as he is divine. He can foretell the future, heal the sick, walk on water. He could, presumably, avert his own crucifixion if he chose. And yet he chooses not to, and the agony of that decision is far more powerfully expressed, I feel, in Tim Rice’s lyrics than in Mel Gibson’s blood-thirsty Passion of the Christ. It’s also, kind of, what Alan Moore has spent much of his career doing in reverse: while Moore likes to imagine what it would be like, really like, to be a man made super-powerful, effectively a God, Tim Rice tries to imagine what it would be like, really like, to be a God made man.
I have a soft spot for the musical, I admit. JCS was the only semi-rock record in the house, apart from the Beatles, when I was growing up, and was a powerful point of connection with my late father. He took me to see it in the ‘70s in the West End, as well as the dreary 1973 film version; I subsequently went to a Kabuki version at the Dominion in 1991. This is the best production by far.
And certainly the only one featuring King Herod played by Chris Moyles as a game show host in a scarlet velour suit in which a “Fraud or Lord?” phone-in seals Jesus’ fate.