Interview: Alexander Knott on The Messiah Complex, “It’s terrifying and that’s the truth”

Opening at VAULT Festival next month, The Messiah Complex is a new psychological, philosophical thriller by Bag of Beard Collective. Set in a world where faith is entirely banned, one man in a secure hospital wrestles with his unceasing belief – it’s 1984 meets Bonnie & Clyde with a dash of A Clockwork Orange.

Devised, scripted and directed by Alexander Knott, James Demaine and Ryan Hutton, the play was nominated for the VAULT Five and arrives at the festival after almost seven years in development. It stars Anthony Cozens, AK Golding and Sasha Clarke.

Ahead of opening, we caught up with Knott to talk about the play, taking what you believe to extremes, and the future of VAULT Festival.

The Messiah Complex. Photo: Charles Flint Photography

Q&A with Alexander Knott

Hi Alex, thanks for talking with us about The Messiah Complex. What’s it like to be opening at VAULT Festival?

There’s a lightning in a bottle energy to VAULT. It’s like almost nowhere else. The most frequent comparison is to the Edinburgh Festival, but hidden away underneath Waterloo, a secret London, a hub of artists and their work. But there’s a slight melancholy in the air now, as I write it was just announced yesterday that this might be the final festival in VAULT’s current premises, due to the landlord wanting to seek more “commercial opportunities”. What a profound shame. How sadly predictable. As I said on social media, this institution needs a new institution. Throughout the existence of Bag of Beard, our company has dreamt of getting a show on at VAULT Festival. After a 2022 Covid hiatus, The Messiah Complex opens there next month. No matter what, VAULT should continue. This festival is a beacon to artists and one of the increasingly few affordable, central, well-regarded and well-attended opportunities to showcase new work. Without it our theatrical ecosystem will be immeasurable poorer.

What can you tell us about Bag of Beard?

We’re a collective that sprang out of the Acting course at Italia Conti in 2016. We came together initially out of a shared desire to make almost grotesque theatre, bonded over Jacobean tragedy. But from the get-go we took the initial surreal instincts and tried to bury them in subtext and contemporary urgency, and that merging of our love for the bizarre and the intense began to morph into dark comedy. So over our career, we’ve told stories of 60s gangland London, grubby art-student capers, the incredible true story of a soldier buried alive, and reimagined A Christmas Carol as an almost socialist winter fable. Our productions are often semi-devised, built collaboratively, have original music and kind of cinematic soundtracking, and contain flashes of dark humour. This play is, perhaps, for better or worse, our most disturbing.

The Messiah Complex. Photo: Charles Flint Photography

The Messiah Complex has been in development by Bag of Beard for over 6 years – how does it feel to now be launching the show?

It feels like it’s been gestating for a very long time, but now is absolutely the right moment for it to fully grow. It was a short play in 2016, then a longer version that was more poetic than philosophical, and now we have the 2023 version that incorporates both Beckett-ian surrealism and very philosophical ideas. But for however worthy that might sound, it’s a thriller, a psychological horror, about a government Authority that has banned anything that cannot be proven, that can edit dreams, that suppresses the imagination in favour of a rational and purely scientific society. It’s terrifying and that’s the truth. We hope the ideas within in it are disturbing and it makes people hope, pray and try not to end up anywhere near a society like that, let alone living in one. Sometimes we wondered if the time for this story had come and gone, but the more bad news started clouding up the internet, the more you hear about what governments in different states declare is unequivocally and inarguably “the truth” and the more our own media puts those country’s stories in inverted commas like I just did, the more we wanted to bring our twisted, fictitious (we hope), allegorical world to theatrical life.

How do you think audiences will react to the show?

There’s no denying that the ideas within in it are provocative. If the idea of declaring God is dead is old school by now, I think that it is still a provocation to say that God has been banned. With each rehearsal, we peel another layer off that onion, what different things would mean in this society, how the characters would live within it, and each layer is more horrifying than the last. I could not honestly tell you what a gospel Christian would feel after seeing our play. I couldn’t tell you what a particle physicist would think. They’d probably both say “Well, I would never do that”. But this play is about taking what you believe to extremes – on all sides. As long as people want to talk about it after it’s finished, that’s all we want. We’ll be in the bar.

What opportunities or challenges are there in working as a collective?

I can’t remember who said “if you ignore all the other imaginations in the room with you, you’re an idiot”, but someone said it. I think not necessarily having a principle artist at the heart of a play is liberating, exciting but also comes with a sense of “who is flying this plane?” But the answer has to be, to carry on that allegory, we’ll all take shifts in the cockpit. You’re bound to go down some blind alleys when you have three writers, three directors, additional devising by the company – but as long as you all know what the aim is, how you want to make the audience feel, what the vibe of the story is, then there are no limitations to what you can make. It makes a change from hammering away at a keyboard on your own, and it’s a thrilling energy when it’s flowing.

Finally, how would you describe The Messiah Complex to someone considering buying a ticket for the show?

It’s……Samuel Beckett’s episode of Inside No 9, A Clockwork Orange written by Harold Pinter, and served with a side order of an underground love story like Bonnie & Clyde. If those things fused together sounds like a mind-bending night, then book. Book it now. We’re looking forward to seeing you.

The Messiah Complex is at the Network Theatre as part of VAULT Festival from 14 to 19 March.