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Passion on ice

02 November 2006


To experience the Middle East, Hazel Southam headed north


IT'S SNOWING. In fact, it's trying to work itself up into a blizzard, and 300 people are sitting in a winter wonderland that is Finland at Easter, wrapped in dozens of layers of clothing, watching the Via Dolorosa.

The enactment of Christ's last days, his death and resurrection, is not only an annual fixture in the calendar of the small lakeside city of Kuopio, but is increasingly drawing tourists from abroad. People line the streets of the small square that links the Finnish Orthodox cathedral and the Lutheran church, cheering the procession that begins the one-and-a-half-hour performance.

It is literally freezing, which is relatively warm for Finland's Via Dolorosa pageant. The casts in earlier years have performed in temperatures reaching -28°. Despite the local banter about how mild it is, there's still more than a foot of snow on the ground, and people are warmly wrapped up with the help of the local council, which provides everyone with a poncho made out of old blankets. We need it.

Dancing girls, fire-eaters, and Roman soldiers process round the town in the darkness that descends just before the 9 p.m. start. Everyone cheers and calls out "Happy Easter" to each other. Later, the crowd becomes uncomfortably fickle: turning to and against Jesus like waves beating on the shore. There's much sympathy for Jesus, but also for Judas, Mary, and Peter, as well as for Pilate, who gives a convincing performance.

Teachers, schoolchildren, priests, and housewives make up the 80-strong cast of a production now boasting a 200,000-euro budget. This mostly amateur cast serves as a reminder that ordinary people were caught up in extraordinary events surrounding Jesus's death 2000 years ago. Next year, though, the ranks of the ordinary folk of Kuopio may be swelled by an international star. The famous tenor José Carreras is mentioned, but an announcement isn't due until the end of April.

The aim is to take the Via Dolorosa to the next level, to make it an international event that draws tens of thousands to the 93,000-strong city by the lake. It's a bold step for an event that has much humbler beginnings.

Six years ago in the town of Iisalmi, 80 km to the north of Kuopio, an Orthodox priest, Fr Elias, decided it would be a good idea to get the Orthodox and Lutheran Churches working together. A Passion play seemed just the vehicle.

Fr Elias recruited a producer, a director, and an actor, all of whom were well-known in Finland, and placed an advertisement in the press appealing for those in the community who wanted to take part. "After that, everyone brought their friends, and so now it's grown," says the producer, Heikki Kahara. "Now we can't fit anyone else in the play."

The youngest member of the cast is eight years old. Now that 120 people are involved with the production, there's simply no room for new talent.

The only full-time actor is Akseli Pesä, a serious, bespectacled young man who plays Jesus, with skiing salopettes under his robes to keep him warm. He has been employed to be Jesus for the past three years, but is better known for his role as the Finnish version of Winnie the Pooh, "Uppo-nalle".

"Playing against the weather is difficult," he says. "But Easter is three weeks later this year; so it's quite warm now. It was -18° last year, and it was hard to focus when the snow got in your eyes. But", he smiles, "I get some sympathy from the audience because they think it's cold for me."

The aim here is not evangelism or conversion. Principally, it's about seeing the two State Churches work ecumenically together; and, second, about enabling the Orthodox Church to convey its sense of Easter to a wider public.

The Orthodox Church is big on Easter. For 40 days before Easter, Orthodox believers still fast from meat, dairy products, and chocolate, just eating a diet of fish, fruit, bread and potatoes. On Palm Sunday, they start wishing each other Happy Easter, which they continue until Easter Day.

The Easter Vigil, from 12 midnight until 3 on Easter morning, is as fixed in the country's spiritual calendar as midnight mass is in England. Every church is packed.

At the end of Easter services, they greet each other saying: "Kristos on noussut" (Christ is risen), to which the response is: "Totisesti on noussut" (He is risen indeed). And for 40 days after Easter this is the standard public greeting, whether you're at church, or at the Finnish equivalent of Tesco.

"We hope that in Finland, people can one day come and see and feel the joy of Easter," says Archbishop Leo, head of the Orthodox Church in Finland. "Many people are not so open: they're much more reserved; so they don't show their emotions. The Orthodox Church shows more emotion. We want to teach people the joy of life that can be had in everyday life. Everyone is welcome to the joy, whether they have prepared for Easter or not. That moment is for everyone."

The Archbishop's sentiments explain why the Via Dolorosa is staged at night, so that everyone can attend after work or school. Even small children are brought on to the street to watch the procession, and families wave at the actors from their apartment windows.

The production is staged in Finnish, normally with English subtitles, but there weren't enough British visitors swelling the crowd this year to warrant the cost; so everyone watched the Finnish version. But you didn't have to understand the words to get the meaning: healings, hope, plots, betrayal, despair, agony, death, joy.

After 50 rehearsals, the cast stages the performance for ten nights. Next year - if an international star does add publicity-enhancing weight to the event - it will run only for three or four nights. The budget won't stretch any further.

The director, Pentti Pesä, is not a practising Christian, but he's anxious to get the Easter story across. "The story of Jesus is a great comfort for all those who believe, that there will be something after death," he says. "That's why the most important thing in the play is the resurrection."

The crucifixion and resurrection are both movingly portrayed. The cast leaves the stage in silence, and the audience are asked at the outset not to applaud, and instead to think about the message of the play.

But attempts to leave quietly are quashed by the cast themselves, who line the snowy pathway out of the square, wishing every passing stranger "Happy Easter" - a sound that chases you across town and back into the warm.

There is a madness about staging the Via Dolorosa in the snow. But, if you 're going to do it, you've got to do it, whatever the weather, and the point the Finns are making is that their faith is one of joy, which transcends any weather you can throw at them.

This year's performances finish on 17 April. Pax Travel will offer a five-day trip to Kuopio, including a performance of the Via Dolorosa, in the region of £500 for 2007. For more details, phone 020 7485 3003; www.paxtravel.co.uk. Independent travellers can book tickets for the performance direct on 358 17 182 584 or tourism@ kuopio.fi. For group tickets, phone 358 17 182 577; www.kuopioinfo.fi/english

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