Messiah at Bristol Old Vic

Even if you know nothing about Handel’s Messiah, it’s likely that you will have heard the hugely famous ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, which, tonight, The Erebus Ensemble deliver with enough tension and beauty to distract you from even drawing breath.

Forming part of Bristol Proms, Messiah is a collaboration between these incredible, interwoven singers, the passion and mastery of The English Concert (“Europe’s leading Baroque orchestra”) and Bristol Old Vic. BOV’s Artistic Director, Tom Morris, takes centre stage before the performance of this mid-Eighteenth Century masterpiece to tell us that Messiah made its Old Vic debut in 1782! Think about that for a minute. He assures us that we’re allowed to applaud, which we do – a lot – and tells us that he’s taken artistic licence; we’re about to witness a performance of Messiah unlike any that we’ve seen before. He’s right, of course: I’ve enjoyed Messiah at Christmastime at the Colston Hall, with a full orchestra and chorus. But this …

This is a dramatised concert, the Erebus Ensemble acting out the Messiah’s (Jesus, or here known as ‘The Beloved’) bereaved flock, a community re-evaluating life after the execution of their leader, coming to terms with their own guilt (they literally have blood on their hands). The five soloists are Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Joshua Ellicott, Brindley Sherratt, Julia Doyle and Henry Ashbee (replaced by Cordelia Wood on 7 & 9 April), each bringing their own specialty of voice and distraught, elated, confused expressions. For me, Soprano Julia Doyle, who, one supposes is Mary Magdalene, is astonishing and every time she sings, nothing else in the entire world exists. Spine-tingling.

‘The Beloved’ is played by a different actor each night for this BOV run: our Chosen One is Nir Paldi of Ad-Infinitum, who, although he has no lines, deserves a Laurence Olivier award for Sheer Endurance, after fooling us that he really is dead and for hanging mercilessly upon his cross to a backdrop of Rod Maclachlan’s projection design, who has beamed burning scriptures, blood, the sands of time (and I fancied I saw a map of the Middle East in there?) onto what at first appears to be a climbing wall.

Some members of the audience have secured on-stage seating, being at one with the action, so that they too form part of the flock, those onlookers who know what’s playing out around them but are content to let it happen, making no move to change destiny. Some get their feet washed by the Messianic Leader. Us? We’re in the mosh pit, a few front rows of seating having been removed to give standing room, as they always are here during Bristol Proms (and with tickets from a mere £8). But we don’t mosh; we barely even move through these two dazzling hours, surrounded by music that pulls us in completely as we ponder the humanity of the crestfallen faces before us. From time to time, my senses are slung into confusion as some members of the cast and orchestra move around the auditorium, throwing divinity at us from the sides, from behind. Voices. Music.

Sometimes I feel very, very lucky. And this is one of them. Superb. Whoever you are.


Messiah plays at Bristol Old Vic until 9th April


Image by Jack Offord, with thanks

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