Ode to London by Celia Daniels

Jesus, apparently, is just beginning to go bald and carries a guitar on his back. His disciples wear hoodies with hems that just barely brush their thighs; Mary Magdalene’s feet are covered by second hand sneakers that look like they’ve been thrown in the wash and bleached.

The grass of Regent Park’s Open Air Theatre’s right bank flattens beneath my weight as I shift and watch the cast of Jesus Christ: Superstar take to the stage.

I am outside of my native country for the first time in twenty one years, in London for a full month. There is a bag of fudge resting in my purse; during the intermission I will trade six pieces for two mini jaffa cakes. If there is a word for “theatre rat” that doesn’t sound like my name, London hasn’t given it to me yet. By the time I leave, I’ll have attended eight shows, and I’ll have seen Jesus Christ: Superstar twice.

It takes an effort to ignore the ache in my wallet, especially as I listen to Judas preach wise judgement: save your money, think of others before thinking of yourself, don’t spend frivolously. Judas, I think, as I watch him take command of the stage, would not like the me that’s come to the surface in London. The city, I’ve found, is something like a wishing well. Throw in two pounds, get some tea in return; throw in five, get a bottle of sparkling red grape juice; throw in all the cash that’s left in your wallet, get tickets to some of the most beautifully selfish pieces of art in the world.

The Pharoses, when they enter, come dressed in black and gold with microphones attached to their staffs. The crowds who worship Jesus cover themselves with gold glitter and wipe their fingers through Jesus’s colorless hoodie while the Messiah scrambles to try and get away from them.

Then Pilate arrives.

(At every theatre I go to, I develop what I’ve come to refer to as a “theatre crush”. Man or woman, I pick an actor and deem them my favorite. I follow them throughout the show, no matter how small their roll is; when I go home, I end up searching their entire discography.)

When I see Pilate, combat-booted and eyeliner-ed, London reaches out, takes me by the shoulders, and says, “Where else are you going to see a Roman soldier who has a laurel tattooed onto his head and who sings like a rock god?” When Jesus falls before him in the second act, too silent to beg for his life, some of his blood smears onto Pilate’s forehead; it’s selfishly aesthetic and I lap it up.

Good theatre, I think, reflects part of the city it shows in. As Jesus’s blood mixes with the glitter that’s migrated onto the stage, I see the narrow London alleys and the gilded offices come together. Rain mists down on my forehead as I grip at the right bank’s grass, waiting for Pilate to let Jesus go, even though I know he won’t. They whip the Messiah with glitter, then crucify him on a cross made of a mic stand and a speaker beam. I lose my breath as the amphitheater shakes; Jesus cries out, sobs, then falls silent. The stage goes dark.

London doesn’t empty when night falls, I’ve found; from the windows of the apartment I’m staying in I can see motorcycles, trash trucks, and the Shard, lit up by lights that go on for miles.

I see the disciples retrieve Jesus from his cross while the lights are still down. When they come up, gentle and dim, the cast is still in character. They look out across the crowd, then turn their gaze stage right – to the grassy bank where I am sitting. There is no one else there to absorb the blow; I am struck rabbit still, desperate for the moment to break so I can run out of the theatre.

There’s something about a man who’s playing the Messiah staring into your soul that does things to you. After applauding for what feels like several years, I am one of the first people to head for the exit. I end up shaking the entire time it takes me to walk back to my apartment.

Jesus Christ: Superstar is the last show I see in London. Two days after finding myself pinned to the grass in the right bank, I find myself in Heathrow, humming the title song under my breath, too busy with luggage and delays to think about the story that’s settled in my brain.

My time in London is hard to explain. I find, though, that while I struggle to find words to describe the whole of my experience, words about this show in particular come easily. For me, Jesus Christ: Superstar in Regent Park’s Open Air Theatre was London: it was camp, it was dark, it was stylized, but it was also real. There was blood on Pilate’s forehead like there was blood on my mile high lips; the paint on Judas’s hands was the same paint that decorated the alleys by my apartment; the glitter on Jesus’s brow was the same glitter I saw in every theatre London led me to.   

Some of that glitter seems to have caught on me, and even now, I don’t think I can wash it all the way off.