The National Theatre is an Orwellian Ministry of Truth dedicated to filtering out passion and laughter

It's been a bit of a tough old month but, as they say, what doesn't kill you can only strengthen you. My latest opus, Messiah, has been taking its message to the four corners of the globe . . . Well, not exactly. It's more like the draughty corners such as Zagreb, Belgrade and Warsaw, where it has been greeted with queues round the block, standing ovations and a first prize - the audience nomination prize. Sadly, I could not go out there and lap up some of the cream because I was working on a TV show for the BBC. The contrast could not have been greater as, for the telly, I had to be coerced to use so little energy and so little of my alleged talent that I felt like a walking zombie. However, I was grateful for the cash, because I financed the Messiah tour myself, with some appreciated aid from the Arts Council.

Messiah started out at Oxford the very day of the New York horror. By one of those strange acts of synchronicity, I happened to turn on the TV during my lunch break. I had returned to my hotel pretty shattered after a lightning rehearsal, poured a bath, hit the switch and there it was. Nothing seemed the same after. Messiah opened the next day and it seemed to touch a deeper chord in the audience; it's as if at such terrible times we become more sensitised to pain, anguish, love, or any words or actions that soothe the wounded soul.


Messiah came into being while I was working in Israel in 1978. I was directing a Hebrew version of Kafka's Metamorphosis, which turned out to be one of the theatre's big hits. While wandering around Haifa one day I saw in a bookshop an intriguing title, The Trial and Death of Jesus, written by the eminent scholar and late chief justice Chaim Cohn. The book dealt with the most provocative theme of why the Jews had never defended themselves against the charge of deicide. With the most painstaking erudition, Cohn nimbly navigates through the minefield of ancient Jewish law, and makes a case for the defence that the "spin" on Jesus - as given in the Gospels - could quite simply in legal terms never have happened. This inspired much of my own tale of Jesus as a revolutionary Jew, executed by the Romans for an act of terrorism, you might say.

So I wrote the play and then, after showing it to a few uninterested morons, shut it in a drawer for 20 years! One day I rescued it from its dark incarceration, rewrote much of it, and offered it to the National, who turn down everything I write as a kind of reflex action for reasons I will not be "Tynanesque" enough to go into now. I regard it as such a wasted opportunity to turn down an epic work in favour of doing these safe and mild three- and four-handed domestic plays. Audiences love epics! I think of the National now as an Orwellian Ministry of Truth that is dedicated to filtering out any such dangerous elements as passion, laughter or anything not in the master's image.


Eventually, I decided to finance Messiah myself, using the blood money from a McDonald's voiceover, for which I was rapped over the knuckles by great stalwarts of the industry, "respectable" actors who never in their lives put their hands in their own pockets to finance something they believed in except a piss-up at the bar.


On the weekend I was invited to Joan Collins's bash for the cast of Over the Moon, in which she is starring with Frank Langella, the great American scene-chewer. Joan's do also included her son Sacha Newley's exhibition of paintings recently seen at the Catto Gallery in Hampstead. Sacha is a self-taught painter with vast talent in capturing some indefinable ghost of the personality. Also he's a striking-looking combo of Dad - minus the East End leer - and Mum, so you can't go wrong. Moira Shearer, in the same play, actually rose to her feet to meet me, and the legend of The Red Shoes was and is as vivacious as ever. Unlike painters, musicians and writers, whose high-won positions are not necessarily or automatically reduced with the march of time, great stars often end up as supporting actors, as charming antiquities. Joan and I acted together in my film version of my stage play Decadence and it is probably one of the most beautiful performances she has ever given on camera. It was rudely and very snidely dismissed although it has now achieved a kind of cult status, and so we talked about working together again. Therefore I jotted out another play last week - as is my wont - called Wilde About You, and as the title suggests, it's an attempt at Wildean vernacular. And so I am sticking my neck out again!


My old friend Ronnie Biggs is back in hospital. I have made an application to visit and have not received word as yet. I once wrote a book called A Prisoner in Rio, detailing with some vituperation the mess of the film that was alleged to be about him. While Biggs's life was fascinating to a degree, the film's bovine director chose to fictionalise the events, and the filming of it in the slums and stink of Rio was one of the most depressing experiences I have ever had. In book form it is most fascinating, but it was brought out with no support from the publishers, pitted with typographical errors and so I bought the entire stock and you can order it via my website. I guarantee a good read!


Back to Messiah . . . Now we are touring again and this time we will succeed, even if we have to go the commercial route. West End producers only care about bums on seats - but I like that kind of hard-nosed honesty.

This article first appeared in And now the trouble really begins

2001-11-19