Particulars of Performing in a Passion Play, Part 2

Photo by Andy Teo @Photocillin

Read Part 1, for reference.

We had costumes!

I’m not 100% convinced of the periodicity, but so what. We were clearly and distinctly Roman soldiers, which is what counts. Something that I would really rather not call a surplice, except that it essentially was a surplice; a black faux-leather tunic over; a red cloak, a black belt, and a helmet that was a workman’s hardhat turned around, with added leather bit at the front and a plume gaffered on top. Some of the lads were soldiers all through the production; some of them started off as Temple Guards, then got to put a helmet and a red cloak on and magically transform into soldiers themselves, to swell the ranks for the crucifixion. Nice career path, though I doubt many actual Temple Guards of the time ended up in the Legio VI Ferrata.

We had crosses!

These were really quite impressive. Hollow, reinforced wooden frames, hinged on their bases for easy elevation, though part of the soldier deployment was to have a man standing on the base at all times to prevent the cross toppling forward and depositing its perp face down on the stage. Jesus’s cross had a detachable crossbar, which was the bit he carried from his trial to Golgotha.

In the final run through on Saturday, Jesus protested that he could feel the stage beneath the cross wobbling. I told him it was the earthquake of Matthew’s gospel.

Health & Safety required Jesus to have a safe word: if he said it, he was to be taken off the Cross immediately. Not entirely canonical but we are told to obey the civil authorities …

We had a clear conscience!

A Jewish gentleman got in touch with the producer to express reservations about the whole thing: played wrongly, it is very easy to take an anti-Semitic message away from a Passion Play. Minor revisions were made to highlight the consciences of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both senior Jews who tried to stand up to the High Priest, and to make it clear that it wasn’t the Jews who killed Jesus, it was the Romans.

What we didn’t have was weather … Not the right kind, anyway.

We had a wet weather plan, Plan B, which was to fall back into St Helen’s. It’s the largest of the churches, and when it’s almost empty it looks even larger. But it’s still considerably smaller than the Abbey Gardens – which as the name suggests used to contain an abbey. There was almost palpable excitement when everyone – actors + musicians + choir + crowd – started rehearsing together: it was a bit like a ship finally being put together out of all the hull sections that had been made around the country. But, even on our own we packed St Helen’s out. There would be space for an audience of about three.

(Pilate failed to show up to the first all-combined all-through rehearsal, giving me the opportunity to say we should proceed on auto-Pilate. A Facebook friend recommended we go to the nearest Pilates class and get a new one.)

Back to the weather. A week before the show, the crucifixion party had the crosses demonstrated and Chris got a taster of what was to come. It was freezing and wet, very lightly sleeting. We didn’t want to be out in that. But we didn’t want Plan B either.

The last of my extra-curricular assignments was to get the programme typeset and printed. I picked it up on the Friday feeling sick at heart, because snow was forecast for the next day and it was so clear we couldn’t do Plan A. Even though the cover of the programme gaily announced that the show was in the Abbey Gardens.

Photo by Andy Teo @Photocillin

And then, with a little over 24 hours to go, we got Plan C, which was genius. The kind people of the town council offered us the use of the Guildhall, for free. The Guildhall is right next to the gardens. And there was no precipitation forecast for the Sunday. It would be cold – in the region of minus one – but dry. So, the play would open as planned, and Jesus would enter Jerusalem triumphantly on his (Andalucian) donkey, and so on and so forth, right up to the turning over of the tables and Jesus storming off in search of somewhere he can actually find God. (Remember what I said about narrative drive?) After that the action would move into the Guildhall. The Last Supper, Gethsemane, the Denial, the two appearances before Pilate and one before Herod would all be done indoors, in the warm and dry. After an hour of that, everyone would be nice and toasty and ready to venture out again for crucifixion and Resurrection.

What could go wrong?

We’ll come back to that.

I think the opening market scene was when everyone knew it was going to work. For 45 minutes before the official opening there was a “Jerusalem market” in the formal area of the gardens – stalls, entertainers, entertainments, actors wandering around in character and mingling with the crowd, who all seemed to be loving it. And what a crowd – apparently 1200 were clocked in through the gates. I had deployed the soldiers in pairs to patrol and to stand sentry at the various entrances. One old dear asked one of them, “are you part of the play?” Sadly he didn’t come back with, “what, this old thing? No, it’s just something I threw on …”

Photo by John Crocker

I certainly felt the part. Photos may suggest otherwise. I just have to get used to the fact that even when I think I’m scowling and looking well’ard, I am essentially round faced and benign.

And then we came to the first scripted line, a man standing on a barrel and welcoming everyone to Jerusalem … and I couldn’t hear a word. Bugger. Then I could hear a word. And another. And another. Sadly, not the ones in between.

Photo by Andy Teo @Photocillin

Our heroic sound engineers got it eventually, but because of the sudden adoption of Plan C, the existing sound plot had had to be torn up and started from scratch. Some mikes would work indoors, some would work outdoors, some both. There were already not enough to go round and a schedule had been worked out so everyone knew when to give their mike to someone else … and this was a whole extra layer of complication, not least for those actors with speaking parts inside and out.

And then there was the crowd itself. A lovely, well behaved, very determined crowd of 1200. Which is a lot to squeeze through narrow openings, like the path that connects the two halves of the gardens. They started breaking loose and pushing through the bushes, despite the best efforts of soldiers and stewards to keep them on the right track. But the real fun was when they had to get into the Guildhall. The Guildhall is not a TARDIS; it adheres to conventional geometrical notions by being smaller inside than out. It could have worked better if we had counted heads into the main room up to a certain number, counted them into the overflow room, and firmly told the rest that sorry, you’re not coming in. But even if we had, the sheer mass of people would still have stopped actors surreptitiously meeting up to hand their mikes over. No one in the Pilate scenes was wired – but fortunately they were up on the stage and we just had to talk loud.

(Thankfully someone pushed a mike into my hand as we were leaving the Guildhall for the Way to the Cross. I know it worked at least some of the time because I could hear the crackling over the speakers as I surreptitiously tried to fix it on under my helmet without breaking character. But I still don’t know if anyone heard my immortal lines from the crucifixion.)

For some reason the Guildhall actually had a pair of pillars and Romanesque eagles back stage, so Pilate’s palace actually had a bit of scenery. The first appearance was meant to start with Annas and the Centurion having a battle of wills: Annas adamant that Pilate must come out to see him, Centurion equally adamant that he won’t. But house lights were down and all I could see up on stage was the suggestion of a very large crowd. Somewhere in all that was Annas, shouting his lines. And so I said my bit on cue and – lo! – Annas and the priests appeared up the side stairs. Phew.

Then came the only real bit of improvisation that I noticed all day. As I’m sure everyone knows, PIlate casts around for a reason why Jesus isn’t his problem, and when he learns Jesus is from Galilee, he orders Jesus to be taken to Herod who has responsibility for that area.

Except that this time, Pilate simply ordered, “take him to Herod!” and walked off. Leaving the priests looking a little uncertainly at each other, until Annas remarks, “Because of course Herod has responsibility for Galilee …”

Photo by Andy Teo @Photocillin

There was mounting excitement inside and out as the Way to the Cross proceeded. Audience members were running past us to get into position at the far end of the gardens. There was already a line of soldiers in front of the crosses to act as a crowd control barrier and I have to say the scene looked pretty threatening as we approached. Three crosses, two pre-loaded with thieves, and lines of scowling soldiers, just looking back and … waiting. I enjoyed being able to ad lib an order to the legionaries to clear a path through the crowd. Some got into it with relish. One rather let down the might of the Empire with “move aside, please …”

Some of the excitement, of course, was the waiting to see how we were going to do it. But I already knew that. For me, as Chris successfully acted toting a hollow wooden box as if it were a solid beam, there was the increasing feeling that This Was It: the play, like Jesus’s ministry, was all about this moment. This was all planned: this was how it was meant to be. The play was designed to look like an unforeseen sequence of events – but, just like the original, every step was planned. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going.

Jesus approached Golgotha knowing that he faced hours of agony, a slow death and the pain of separation from the God he had known and loved all his life. Chris approached it knowing that he would shortly be stripping down to his undies and made to stand for 20 minutes in a strong, sub-zero easterly wind. I don’t know what was going through his mind but I know what would be going through mine. Yet, the only concession I saw him make to the cold was at the end of the choir’s final song, when he had been told to leave a good 15 seconds before his “It is finished.” He gave it about 1.5 seconds, but no one is blaming him.

Photo by Andy Teo @Photocillin

Apparently the thieves had hot water bottles stuffed down their oversized loincloths, but the Unrepentant Thief still looked perilously close to the first stages of hypothermia with uncontrollable shivering. His cross offered very little shelter from the easterly -1 degree wind. When I last saw him he was fully dressed and drinking a hot cup of tea, so I assume he made it. Our Penitent Thief was a last-minute cast American theology student, who said beforehand that it had always been his favourite Bible scene and it was an honour to take part. Subsequent thoughts are unrecorded.

And then the bodies were taken down, and Jesus was carted off to the tomb, and the crowd dispersed to the Resurrection scene. And for us, the play was over. Back to the Guildhall for tea and what turned out to be cold cross buns.

And, you know what? We made history. We did the first Abingdon Passion Play. If it becomes a tradition, we started it. And it wasn’t just a few Christian nutters: not every actor was a Christian, and quite certainly not every one of that 1200 strong crowd was. But they came. It would be interesting to get statistics on the ones who followed it all through to the end; but, they came.

Next time, in keeping with the weather, we could do The Passion on Ice? Except it would probably be a heatwave.

Particulars of Performing in a Passion Play, Part 1

I said no at first. Rather, I didn’t say anything, when the casting calls started going out. It sounded like too much hard work. I was in sympathy with the aims; I thought an Abingdon Passion Play would be nice to do. It was going to be performed in the Abbey Gardens, on Palm Sunday, with different locations for different scenes. All very traditional. But …

And then the pleas started getting more impassioned. Simple arithmetic – they just didn’t have enough parts. And it would be a shame for such a noble venture to fail for reasons of apathy, wouldn’t it? There was to be another audition (and another, and another, as it turned out) in early January. So I asked about the time commitment and was told rehearsals would be every Wednesday until Palm Sunday. And it’s a relatively early Easter this year. How hard could it be? We would hit the ground running in 2013, I thought, and off we would go.

Well, we hit the ground all right. The running was the harder bit. Auditions were a case of turn up, and if you’re still interested, come to a rehearsal. The sneaking suspicion started to sink in that we were in the hands of well-meaning but not especially ept amateurs, all pulling in different directions. Like, at one point we were told the next rehearsal would be in two weeks’ time; then we got an email saying the next rehearsal was next week, so we duly turned up. Turned out it wasn’t a rehearsal. When we pointed this out to the producer the week after we got no sympathy for having foolishly taken an email from a member of the committee at face value. The sole response was, “did I send the email? No? Well, only believe emails from me.” Not encouraging.

But I stuck with it …

Finally, a script was produced and all interested parties invited to a read-through. The script was slightly longer than the Ring Cycle and with slightly more musical numbers, but it was a start. That was the first really positive development. The next was that even though parts for the read-through were more or less randomly handed out, all present were unanimous that we had our Caiaphas. John C produced a tone of voice that was at once sarcastic, vicious and oleaginous – everything the villainous High Priest should be. I believe he’s a lecturer in real life.

But still it hung in the balance. The original producer dropped out for personal reasons. So did Jesus, and then so did the next Jesus, which in a Passion Play is kind of important. John C asked me if I thought I was “being set up to play the Christos”. My instinctive but unspoken response was “Christos, I hope not.”

At the end of January the whole thing hung in the balance for 48 hours or so as the committee deliberated. Should we call it quits? Should we postpone and put it on after Easter – say, Pentecost? Which would be doable, but would raise the obvious question of why, say, we weren’t doing a Pentecost play. Or maybe, with quite a substantial rewrite, we would.

But no. Meanwhile, the new producer asked me if I could do an edit of the script. Finally, something to sink my teeth into, so I waded in. I left the musical numbers in – not my problem – and also a lot of the somewhat specific stage directions, e.g. “Jesus breaks into a sweat”. But I got the Ring Cycle down to about 2 hours; I honed the dialogue so that people spoke to each other more or less colloquially, rather than in slightly out of context Bible quotes; and I gave it some narrative drive so that one scene – and indeed the actions within each scene – should lead logically and naturally into the next. In many ways a passion play is like a requiem or a panto – you already know what elements go into it, the enjoyment is in seeing what the performers do with them – but even so it should all make sense as a whole.

(My draft was further polished by other hands, mostly to streamline the opening and closing scenes.)

The temptation to give Pilate an amusing speech impediment was almost overwhelming – but I didn’t, not least because I quite fancied the part for myself. And I took huge delight in taking out Pilate’s final line – “What have I done?” – because there are two lines that just shouldn’t appear in any serious work and that is one of them. (The other is “No-o-o-o-…!”)

And then – oh, frabjous day! – then the new producer brought in the new director, the utterly wonderful and amazing Sam Pullen-Campbell. Sam walked around the proposed performance site, the Abbey Gardens, and saw how it could be done, and said yes, she would do it. That was the day the play took off.

The next rehearsal actually involved auditioning – a producer and director looking at you to see what you could do. (And acting exercises, like: put your two index fingers together, rotate one clockwise and the other anticlockwise. “Droopy but you’ve got the right idea,” she told me. “Probably not the first time you’ve been told that,” whispered the future Simon Peter, displaying a shocking lack of reverence towards his former youth leader.) This was 30th January – a mere, oh, 7.5 weeks before the scheduled performance. Who’s worried?

Courtesy of the Abingdon Passion Play website –

Sam imported some of the key roles, not least Jesus himself, from her own contacts. The Man was Chris Young, who is 18 and still at school, but can act 30 better than many 30 year olds. He wants to be a professional and I’ve no doubt he will be. I want to get a t-shirt made saying “I knew Chris Young before he was famous.”

And we were away. I wasn’t Pilate, I was the Centurion. Well, he had some good lines too. Out of respect and a sense of humanity for whoever ended up with the part I had already changed the John Wayne favourite “Surely this was the Son of God” line to “He must have been the Son of God,” which is a lot easier to say naturally. Economy of characters meant that he also got the one-liners previously attributed to a couple of walk-on soldier parts, which was even better because it meant I got to channel my inner Michael Caine and tell the High Priest and his entourage that Pilate does not come at the beck and call of a bunch of religious nutters. And I supervised the flogging of Our Lord.

Then came my next unexpected role: soldier coordinator. Soldiers are also quite important to a Passion Play but they were probably the hardest groups to get volunteers for. I mean, for the Apostles all you need is Simon Peter and a cricket team, but the soldiers …


Courtesy of the Abingdon Passion Play website –

They were gradually pulled in from left, right and centre, and needed someone to work out their deployments throughout the play. And who better than the Centurion? Apart from anything else, oral directions – “stand there!” – could be given, entirely in character. The Abingdon Dojo provided some, others came in bit by bit, one by one; eventually we had a credible squad, including a trained paramedic to take Jesus off the Cross (I know, maybe a bit late for a paramedic but hey …) and a real live Redcap as drummer. Carl S, whose wife said he had never volunteered for anything in 25 years of marriage until this, became the man who flogs Jesus and got so into it that at his first rehearsal I actually had to improvise the command to stop when the lashes got up to 39.

Betrayed with a kiss

Courtesy of the Abingdon Passion Play website –

And so the day approached. Rehearsals soon got to be more than every Wednesday – every Monday, Wednesday and Friday by the end of it. I can’t speak for the others, but I was buzzing. I believed in this. I wanted this. Some of the scenes were so astonishing and powerful they brought tears to the eyes, and I don’t mean just because the Temple Guards threw Jesus to the ground wuffly – I mean, roughly – or Carl got a bit too close with the lash. I mean because the words and the story were speaking to us.

St Helen’s and St Michael’s churches lent us their space. Rehearsing in St Michael’s, the highest of the Anglo churches in Abingdon (like, purple clothes over the statues for Lent) meant that when we rehearsed taking Jesus from the Cross and laying him in his mother’s arms, we had a pieta on hand for reference.

The day kept approaching, and we started to look askance at the weather. Palm Sunday 2012 I happen to remember quite clearly, mostly because I spent a lot of it sitting vigil at the bedside of a dying friend in Sobell House. But I also remember being able to sit outside on the terrace and read a book.

Palm Sunday 2013, it soon became clear, was going to be blinkin’ cold, and quite possibly wet …

To be continued!

A proud godfather

I’m going to have to do a couple of weeks as a snake-handling Pentecostal to get it out of my system. Last week, a requiem mass with smells, bells and Latin. Last night a confirmation service with robes, choir and of course a bishop all mitred and croziered up. I’m just not used to all this high church.

But what a lovely service it was: formal but friendly, exactly as long as it needed to be and with a large element of personal pride. Yes, on Remembrance Day 1995 I became a godfather for the first time. Fourteen years and one week later I formally discharged that obligation. In the intervening years, as a result of a special bulk deal negotiated with the family I also became godfather of my godson’s younger brother. A similar bulk deal presumably negotiated with the bishop saw them confirmed together. For some reason the church only gave a week’s warning, so we packed into the car yesterday and headed down to the coast.

A strangely eschatological element – readings from Daniel + Jesus talking about the last days – but some good singable hymns, ending with “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer”, and the bish’s sermon hit all the right spots about being prepared for life. The fact that we didn’t quite get the boys’ parents kneeling at the same communion rail at the same time was just down to the timing of the occasion: it could have happened. Peace was very noticeably offered.

“Well done,” their father whispered to me as the first boy went under the episcopal hands. Well, I can’t claim that much credit but I’m prepared to take every scrap that I can. I was even proud that when the bishop told all the candidates to hold up their confirmation candles, guess whose senior godson was holding his the highest?

And then it was back into the car, returning to Abingdon past midnight and treating myself to a lie-in in lieu of the usual morning writing. Well, it was a special occasion.

I was also delighted that the deed was done by the Bishop of Sherborne. After the service I told him I had been confirmed by one of his predecessors. “St Aldhelm, 705?” he asked.

I say I’ve discharged the duty: obviously I have no intention of just ticking that box and moving on in life. As they get lives of their own they are more likely to be the ones moving on. But right here, right now and with permission of both parents and the boys themselves, here is a very proud godfather with his senior and junior godsons.