Religious persecution has been going on since humanity came up with the concept of religion and made non-believers into someone other – someone different, someone wrong. War upon war upon war has been fought and continue to be fought around the world to this very day. So, let’s ban religion first. Then let’s go a step further and ban faith and belief. Anything which cannot be proven is not only unwelcome, but also illegal. This is the future world that Bag of Beard proposes in The Messiah Complex.
In the dystopian future ‘Now’’ Sethian (Anthony Cozens) is being held in an asylum. His crime is faith. The Nurse (Sasha Clarke) visits him to convince him to recant, to give up his faith and his practice of belief – praying. The story flashes back to ‘Then’ and we see Sethian and his partner Sophia (AK Golding) saving ‘sacred knowledge’ in philosophical and religious books. They carefully wrap each in white cloth, treat them reverently and share their faith together. Sophia’s beliefs come from Adam, her unseen (biblically named) teacher, though there are suggestions of a more intimate relationship. While the Nurse’s beliefs are dictated by the government. For each, is there independent thought or indoctrination?
Considerable thought has gone into the staging, Sophia and the Nurse don’t share the stage at any point. Instead, each enters from different sides – reinforcing how Sethian is caught in the middle; faith or fact. For the asylum, the centre of the stage creates a cell with lines of lights. Back in ‘Now’ these contribute to a simple and striking visual as the books are unwrapped and laid around the lights. A late twist revisits earlier actions and shows them in a different light. This ties smartly in with the set design and allows us to reconsider the set. Was Sethian only in a cell in the ‘Now’ or has he always in one?
A video background, designed by Charles Flint,not only helps us move easily between ‘Then’ and ‘Now’, but allows for emphasis and rules to be displayed. It also contributes to the atmosphere and shows the suffering Sethian undergoes in captivity; the video distorting or missing elements to match his disposition. Cozens does a particularly effective job, impressively flipping between persecution and captivity in the ‘Now’ and an apparently happier past in ‘Then’.
Missing elements in a couple of places along with set-ups that don’t go anywhere suggests that maybe the story has been cut down at some point. There are mentions of Sethian getting books and other items in his cell; a miracle is implied (albeit mockingly) but without follow-up. Is it faith, or is it someone else pushing back against the regime? And there is too much focus on the use of a microphone, which is inconsistent and detracts from the performances.
The Messiah Complex doesn’t offer any answers to the question of faith versus science – how could it really? Instead, it points to the fundamentalism that can creep into belief or non-belief. It subtly, and occasionally not so subtly, suggests that such fundamentalism can be the same – each side being as dug in as the other. It leaves the audience with a lot of questions to ponder, much like faith and science.
Devised, Scripted & Directed by: Alexander Knott, James Demaine, Ryan Hutton
Original Music & Sound Design by: James Demaine & Samuel Heron
Video Design by: Charles Flint
Produced by: Bag Of Beard
The Messiah Complex plays as part of VAULT Festival 2023 until 19 March. Further information and bookings can be found here.