Today we’re joined by the team behind the ominous and omnipotent play The Messiah Complex which lands at VAULT Festival next month. The show is a self-described “Post-Truth Fable” which plays with themes of dystopia, imagination and autocracy. In a world in which faith is banned, what do the faithful have to cling onto? We sat down with Alexander Knott from Bag of Beard Theatre for a pixelated pint to talk all things truth, dogma, atheism, authority and Sambuca.
You can catch The Messiah Complex at VAULT Festival between the 14th and 19th March at 20:15 and 19:45. Tickets are available through the VAULT Festival Box Office.
Hi guys! You’ve put together an ominous-sounding show describing itself as a psychological, philosophical thriller. What can the audience expect going in?
“This is a future unlike any dystopia you’ve encountered before. Anything which cannot be proven has been banned by a science-led, atheist Authority. Those who do not comply, who attempt to hold on to a faith, a ritual, a religion, a fantasy (yes, even Lord of the Rings is banned), are dealt with mercilessly, treated as if they have a mental illness. This is a world of torture presented as kindness, as necessary, and we’re telling a story of the dangers of dogma, and imagining a world where the act of imagination, of dreaming, is simply unacceptable. And if that sounds a little intense, our leading actor also says “It’s a love story”. And you know what? That’s true too. We think it’s an urgent new play.”
The show is set in a world in which faith has been entirely banned, inspired by 1984, Bonnie & Clyde and A Clockwork Orange – what made you decide to put the piece together?
“The three devisers behind this show (Alexander Knott, James Demaine and Ryan Hutton) trained together at Italia Conti, and this was a concept that was thrown around – a world where religion is illegal. The first, unperformed short play was written in (we think) 2016, and it was full of mystery, of intentionally unresolved notions. Then it was potentially going to be part of an anthology of micro plays. Then not. Then there was one full length draft written and, as many theatre makers can imagine and relate to, put in a drawer and left unproduced.”
“Then maybe 3 years ago, we revisited it from a very different starting point – combining that almost Beckett-ian ambiguity we started exploring, with contemporary philosophy and this undercurrent of a forbidden, underground love. What we have now is a fusion of all of those years (literal years) worth of ideas, and it almost vibrates with relevance and analogies. We mean it when we say it’s a philosophical thriller, it’s filled with big ideas, but also twists and jolts of thrilling unpleasantness.”
You’ve described the show as a “post-truth fable”, what does post-truth mean to you and how does that definition find itself in the show?
“We say it’s set in “a possible future”, but it’s a play about right now. About deciding what you truly believe. When we say it’s a post-truth fable, we certainly have our tongues in our cheeks. But in a world where the noise, the sheer noise of it all, is pretty unbearable, from constant news cycles, to endless social media and what, sometimes, seems like a tidal wave of bad news, it can seem impossible to make up your own mind. This is the story of a man who, when told you’re not allowed to believe anything, is trying to hold on to his faith in everything. Sethian, our central character, believes in every god he can, just to keep his beliefs alive. In this world, the Authority have decided completely what truth is – there are no gods, and if they don’t like what you’re dreaming, they’ll edit your dreams.”
Tell us a little bit about the process of creating the show and what you have been up to ahead of the show landing at VAULT Festival.
“We were scheduled for VAULT 2022 but a bleak outlook on the Covid front saw that festival go by the wayside. But we were delighted to be reprogrammed this year, and even more delighted to have our original cast back on board – Anthony Cozens, AK Golding and Sasha Clarke. Even though the script has been reimagined for years, we’re not done yet! We’re rewriting almost every rehearsal, finding new ways to articulate what we’re trying to say, and the production will be filled with additional devising from the company.”
“We’re a collective, and every new group of actors is a part of that – it’s a show belonging to the whole group, not a singular artist; it’s a collective effort. The discussions thrown up just by staging the show are so fertile and electrifying. We’re only just discovering how to do this play, by doing it.”
Now that we’re gearing up for VAULT Festival 2023, what are you most excited for?
“I think we’re all full of anticipation, and excited, to see how this story is going to be received by an audience. While you’ll be drawn in by these characters, all of them conflicted in a unique dilemma, and all of them oppressed in different ways by a brutal world, this story has an unexpected punch in the gut coming. Is it too much? Are we playing with fire? We hope we’re gauging it right! Beyond that, the VAULT Festival is unlike anything else, except maybe Edinburgh Fringe. Put Edinburgh underground, in some tunnels, bottle that energy – and that’s VAULT! So we can’t wait to soak that up.”
“This is a play for anyone who’s looking to for urgency, for excitement, for a psychological thriller. Inspirations we’ve all been talking about are The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World – but anyone fascinated by cult mentality, like the story of Charles Manson, or Wild Wild Country will find something too. And personally, I was inspired by The Crucible, the story of a stand against authority, in a world asking itself what it is, and what it wants to be. If you want a slice of any of those things, we’ll be at the Network Theatre 14th – 19th March. We’d like you to join us.”
Fitting with the themes of our magazine, if your show was an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage (think cocktails, mocktails, shots, beers, be creative!) what would it be?
Just speaking from mine, Alex’s, POV I’d say a white sambuca shot. Some people will love it, some might hate it, but you’ll damn well know you’ve had it.