‘The Messiah Complex’ at VAULT Festival review – Daring dystopia in which faith is banned is weird and rapid


Science and faith collide in this intense and immediate play in which anything not grounded in a provable reality is outlawed. The dystopian interrogation drama from Bag of Beard Theatre will draw comparisons to the likes of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange – eagerly embraced and referenced in the script and Charles Flint’s gritty video design – but stands as a bleak post-truth tale in its own right, examining just what little remains when imagination is stripped away.

As we enter the Network Theatre, we see Sethian (Anthony Cozens) rocking back and forth, trapped in a box with light beams as its perimeters. Everything looks clean and clinical – even more so when we learn he’s been held captive by a shadowy organisation known as The Complex, and questioned by one of its members, a Nurse (Sasha Clarke). If being suddenly confronted by a distraught Sethian wasn’t enough, the dialogue is constantly delivered with this bewildering urgency, one which stands in pretty stark contrast to the way in which the audience is drip-fed information about what exactly is going on here.

Part of the play’s intrigue comes in figuring it out, so I’ll be light on details here, but in transitioning between a grimy ‘then’ and the burning ‘now’, we come to understand Sethian had a close relationship with a religious philosopher and book collector named Sophia (AK Golding), dabbling in a faith which Nurse wants to find out more about, because it violates four rules policing the present set by The Complex. It’s particularly curious that the two female characters are the only ones in possession of the single microphone – or the ‘power’ – available on stage, meaning Sethian is often passed between two narratives, until it breaks him. Cozens gives an electric performance as a mind under strain.

In fact, the jumping between Then and Now speaks to a wider, exciting idea tapped into in Alexander Knott, James Demaine and Ryan Hutton’s script: that if we are to constrain the world around us into the provable reality, then we must abandon the past and the future, which concern themselves with memory and ambition. To take this one step further, it’s perhaps why the edges of Sethian’s cell are lit up, and why a box at the back of the stage – which the Nurse places several objects into throughout the play – emits a beam of light when opened. Does fact only extend to what we experience in the here and now, right in front of us, if we have to exclude everything else?

In wading into the religion versus science debate, The Messiah Complex – despite what the name might suggest – doesn’t pick a side, and is instead highly critical of both arguments or metanarratives, not afraid to bring up the more controversial ideas and dive into darker themes (such as infanticide). Why does religion play such a big part in many conflicts? Is science, with its investigation into hypotheticals, not a practice of faith in itself?

These big ideas and more are embedded in this quietly ethereal thriller, and there for the audience to unpack and indulge themselves in – if they choose to, of course.

The Messiah Complex is now playing at VAULT Festival until 19 March.

Production Images: Bag of Beard Theatre.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Messiah Complex’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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