A Churches Together Open Air Community Production
Written & Directed by John Ashwin
Good Friday, 14th April 2006
The last Christian Drama I had been involved with prior to 'Jesus' was Ladislas Fodor’s ‘The Vigil’ back in April 2004*. I have found it difficult to get hold of good Christian plays and was therefore intrigued to see advertised in the Diocesan News Sheet last year that Churches Together, Chichester were to stage an Open Air Passion Play event on the morning of Good Friday 2006 around the Cathedral and streets of Chichester.
On going (rather anxiously) to the auditions, I was relieved to recognise a number of friendly faces from other drama societies like BROS, Arundel Players and The Barchester Players. The Director John Ashwin had been Headmaster to both my children at Bishop Luffa School and on the audition panel was Muriel Carnegie who had taken the lead in the 2004 Bognor Regis Drama Club’s production of Noel Coward’s ‘Waiting in the Wings’ and at the last minute I had been drawn in to play her long absent son - not much of a compliment to Muriel as I am sure our ages are not that dissimilar! At the audition I expressed an interest in playing Pilate or Caiaphas and as an old friend Chris Doman (who has taken countless leads in G&S) landed the part of Pilate, I was very pleased to be offered the part of Pilate's sparring partner Caiaphas, The Chief Priest.
All the rehearsals were held in the excellent facilities provided at St. Paul’s, Chichester (opposite Metro House) and the Curate James Theodosius was taking the leading role of Jesus.St. Paul’s is a large and growing church and the bustling Parish Centre is evidently well used by the church members and wider community and a popular venue for the annual Chichester Festivities. If you want to get a feeling for what a busy and thriving church this is, do take a look at the ‘A Church Near You’ website entry for St. Paul’s. I counted thirty four different weekly or regular church organised services, youth and bible study meetings and other events alone for a church that seems to be achieving its declared aim ‘to be respectful of tradition and alive to change’.
This is the first street theatre that I and seemingly many of the cast had ever attempted. Back in 1986 I had played Mak the sheep stealer in a marvellous peripatetic version of the Mystery Plays (Tony Harrison - The Mysteries) at Chichester Cathedral, but that was different inasmuch as the audience followed us around the transepts and nooks and crannies of the Cathedral within a well defined area. I was concerned that things could be quite different with street theatre – like how would audiences know where to assemble and would they keep following the action with so many other distractions from all the hustle and bustle of street life on a busy Friday morning?
Our Director John Ashwin was very reassuring that all would be well and had taken some very sensible steps to make things work smoothly – like a fully mobile sound system that followed the action through the streets of Chichester, and all principal characters were equipped with radio mikes so that all words could be clearly heard.
I must compliment John, who also wrote the script, on the way he staged this passion event. We as characters were all robed in authentic period costumes (expertly made for us by Bobbie McWhethy) but the idea was for a present day 'Kate Adie' type BBC Radio announcer Caroline Cawley (superbly played by Kate Cameron) to be a pivotal character giving an amplified radio commentary on the events as they took place. The action was followed by a large choir made up of singers and instrumentalists from many churches and with appropriate hymns at each stopping point.
At 11:00am the action started in Priory Park (which represented the Garden of Gethsemane) with Jesus and three of his disciples and with Caroline interviewing the crowd at the corner of The Ship Hotel. The action then moved down North Street to outside and under the Assembly Rooms where Peter denied knowing Jesus and where Jesus was taken inside to be interrogated by the Chief Priests.
The choir sang ‘My Song is Love Unknown’ before moving down to the Buttermarket which represented Pilate’s palace and where the Chief Priests and the crowd applied pressure on Pilate to execute Jesus and release Barabbas. When Pilate relinquished to the crowd's demands, Jesus was led inside and behind the Buttermarket to be flogged and prepared for his crucifixion.
There followed the first of what were to me exceptionally moving parts of the production – the choir sang ‘Take up thy cross’ and then slowly Jesus in agony was led away carrying his cross followed by the crowd, High Priests and our audience down North Street towards the Old Cross. As part of and in the middle of this mass of moving people (including what was now a very large and attentive crowd of people who had gathered to watch the play) and slowly moving to the steady beat of a drum, I became acutely aware of what it must have been like as our Lord was actually led away to his execution. Hundreds of faces – expectant, bewildered with what was going on and yet excited by it all. This meant all my fears about crowd participation were unfounded - here they were in large numbers and an integral part of the unfolding action. At the Old Cross, Jesus fell and Simon of Cyrene was engaged to carry the cross as the procession moved towards and into the grounds of the north side of Chichester Cathedral and Peter looked on hiding behind a tree and the crowd opposite A&N.
Caroline again interviewed the crowd and had mixed replies – from scorn to pity and then finally Jesus was taken to the point close to the North door of the Cathedral where he and two robbers were nailed to their crosses in front of the crowd. One of the Priests mocked Jesus and asked why he didn’t try to save himself. Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and John were allowed by the centurion to get to the foot of the cross where Jesus was dying.
Due mainly to the very moving performance of James Theodosius as Jesus, I am sure that this scene will remain for all who were fortunate to see it something which will stay with them for a very long time. Never have I seen a more moving and utterly convincing portrayal of the last earthly and human dying moments of our Lord. There wasn’t a whisper from the large crowd who all seemed like me utterly engulfed with the agony of the moment. One could really empathise with Jesus as he summoned all his last strength to exclaim 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani' when he questioned why he had been forsaken and then died with the assuring words that 'Father’s into your hands I commit my spirit'.
As the body of Jesus was taken into the Cathedral, the crowd followed entering by the West door for the mid-day Good Friday Service. Quickly the cathedral filled to overflowing – soon there were not enough seats, then there were not enough service sheets and finally there were not even enough nails that were being handed out as we entered the cathedral. The nails intrigued me – we were told that at a point in the service we would be invited to go up to the cross in front of the Arundel screen and place our nail there. Now I have to confess that the ‘veneration of the cross’ has always given me a few problems, but the symbolic placing of a nail seemed so natural. Prior to the nail laying there was a most moving meditation with the Taize response ‘Jesus remember me..’ when several very accomplished young readers spoke about nails - how they were a reminder of the sacrifice our Lord made, the cold metal the reminder of our cold hearts, the sharpness a reminder of our sharp words, the metal the reminder of the coins paid as a reward for the betrayal, the nail the symbol of violence, physical pain but also the material our Lord used to make things as a carpenter.
There we were actors still in costume, and audience alike packing the Cathedral and slowly but surely flowing down the central aisle to place our own nail in front of the cross.
Forgive the pun, but this whole Good Friday morning experience nailed for me the whole point of Good Friday – how important it is that we should remind ourselves about the agony endured by our Lord for our sake, and give thanks for the ultimate sacrifice he made. It was not lost on me either how effective street theatre can be to help focus on this and that the combined act of street theatre/ church service can be very effective outreach-based ministry - by delivering our message in the streets and finishing in a place of worship we can engage and involve so many more people.
Many thanks to John Ashwin for all his efforts on a wonderful piece of street theatre that used the old Chichester streets, gardens and buildings very effectively, the production team, the cast of ‘Jesus’, the choir and last but not least Chichester Cathedral for making this a Good Friday to reflect and act on for a very long time.
* subsequent to this article Peter produced and directed The Vigil again for Act in Faith at St. Wilfrid's and St. Mary's Church, Felpham and St. Paul's Church, Chichester in 2007 click here for details
Cast of 'Jesus'
Above picture with the kind permission of Peter Pine
The on location photographs below are with the kind permission of Duncan Hanner