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Putting Passion into performance

17 April 2014

Pat Ashworth talks to the originators of two home-grown Passion stagings, one musical and the other theatrical

Unison: John Middleton

Unison: John Middleton

JOHN MIDDLETON is not in the habit of making bargains with God, but confesses that he prayed, "If you'll let me do this thing that's in my head, I'll write you an oratorio."

The "thing in his head" was an opera, Ivanhoe, and as soon as that was done, he began work on the St John Passion, a three-year labour of love that culminated in its première last year at Trinity Methodist Church, Loughborough.

Dr Middleton, a GP for 36 years and a Roman Catholic, has a background in folk music, but no formal musical training, and none in composition.

Talk to artists about how they interpret the Passion, what influences are brought to bear, and what strands come together, and it's not long before a pivotal element emerges.

In this case, it was a folk song, "I am the Resurrection", heard back in the 1980s. At the time, Middleton, and the Anglican cleric to whom the work is dedicated, the Revd John Walker, were a duo called Crossbones, playing in Loughborough folk clubs in their spare time.

The song, by Ray Repp, became their signature tune. Walker, a priest in inner-city Nottingham, died of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2000, the year in which Middleton began the Passion work. "I started writing it before I knew he was dying. It came out of Lent and out of that bizarre promise I made to God," he says.

"It had to be St John because he gives the impression he was there with Jesus, and Jesus must have talked to him a lot. He seems to have an insight into what Jesus was thinking. And St John's Gospel has always fascinated me.

"Whether or not you are a believer, it is impossible to understand the concept of being man and God at the same time. From where I stand, 'to share in our humanity' means partaking of the human condition of uncertainty. There are indications of this tension in, for instance, the lead up to the raising of Lazarus, and the mental conflict of Jesus at Gethsemane. I have tried to imagine the tension and play it in the music."

MUSIC is "emotion, with a bit of maths", he says. The oratorio is not based on a series of set-pieces and arias, but what he calls "a through-written continuous recitative, as in a Wagnerian opera". He took the spoken words fromthe Revised Standard Version, edit-ing them a little to take out repetition, and then, "to help me, and forthe drama to work", sharing outsome of the words of Jesus to others.

"Giving a long speech out to other voices made it as though Jesus's thoughts were coming back at him from a wall, and there's the idea, too, of engaging with the world through a series of personalities, behind which is the soul."

This was particularly dramatic for the Gethsemane section, given that there is no description of Gethsemane in St John's Gospel. In Middleton's version, the words of Jesus to his disciples in chapters 15 and 16 come back to him while he is alone, "fragmented thoughts, chaotic, atonal stuff that gradually gets pulled to a tonal framework. . . I had this feeling of tension, trying to drag this thing that wanted to get into a key, but I wasn't going to let it. At the end of the section, it's a battle between some chaotic elements. It's very emotional, writing passages like these."

The work is in three parts, Prologue, Passion, and Epilogue, - the latter embracing the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

The suffering of John Walker was woven into the piece. "John kind- of-represented Christ, really," he says. "I remember when he was in hospital, he published some sermons from his hospital bed. He was representing Christ in his sufferings, and still giving us inspiration."

THE oratorio is huge and extraordinary, with high drama in the fast beating of drums at the arrest of Jesus, the heavy dragging of the cross towards Calvary, and the insistent hammering of nails in a crucifixion that Middleton says he wanted to make really physical. "I wanted to say: this is not a pretty picture."

Two things about the work make it stand out, Middleton says. "As far as I know, one is to actually just [isolate] the spoken words . . . and have no narration, and the other is to deal with the post-resurrection appearances. Others stop short, but I wanted to have those in."

The original score was written for a full orchestra but, for the première, it was performed by the 12 voices of the Ivanhoe Festival Singers, and the Ivanhoe Festival Ensemble of clarinet, cello, and MIDI keyboard - between them, creating a virtual orchestra. "I'm really amazed that I seem to have been given something that works. I go with it and trust it," Middleton says.

"As it comes, it is like riding some kind of force. You plug yourself in, give yourself a stimulus by looking at the words, and then things come. I felt that [when] writing the opera, and I certainly felt it writing the oratorio."

It had a forceful impact on those who performed it. Canon Stephen Foster, who played Caiaphas and the voice of God, described it as "a profoundly spiritual experience". Lyndon Gardner, the musical director and "Jesus", has won acclaim for roles undertaken as a lyric tenor soloist, but says that none of them came close to the challenges he faced when performing Jesus.

He describes the role as "significantly demanding in every aspect of a singer's armoury. . . Above all, it was the intense personal feelings it evoked during the performance that I recall the most, which, after all the emotional output, left me in a heap of tears in the green room on its conclusion."

THE Poole Passion is a large-scale event first performed as a pilot community-drama project in 2008, and now in its fourth incarnation in the Dorset seaside town.

The impulse that led Sharon Muiruri to write and direct the pilotwas seeing a work by the US artist Bill Viola: The Passions. One piece in the series, Quintet of the Astonished, Viola spoke of as an expression of grief at the loss of his father. This had deep resonance with Muiruri, who had just lost her own father.

"There are significant times in our lives when everything slows down, and others when it's rush, rush, rush," she says. "At key moments, it's as though time does stop, and everything about that moment you remember."

She took the modest idea for a series of human Stations of the Cross to the Rector of St Peter's, Parkstone, the Revd Nigel Lloyd, who drew in the minister of Parkstone United Reformed Church, the Revd Jonathan Martin. "He said that Poole had wanted a Passion play for some time, and was just waiting for someone who could do it," she says. "Before I knew it, that was it."

The Passion story, she says, is one of bereavement, a universal narrative that echoes the loss felt by members of the audience. "It's also about love, and acknowledgement of pain, and hope." Her starting point was the Gospel accounts, chiefly that of Mark, where she sought, at critical moments, to get the balance between simple language and interpretation.

"Then, the more you act it out and rehearse it, the more it moves away from the fine writing of the scriptures to something more immediate for people," she says.

FOR a while, what came out of the writing was what she describes as "a fairly traditional retelling of the final part of Jesus's life. The play lacked a dynamic. What was needed was another perspective, and I decided to tell the story through the eyes of a child, because children see the world more truthfully than adults. In a way, it was to help the audience, as much as myself, to look at the life of Jesus from another viewpoint."

A freelance arts practitioner andan associate lecturer in drama and theatre at the University of Winchester, she works with people in recovery from addiction, several of whom have been part of the diverse range of people who come together to perform the play. The cast includes professionals and amateurs, including "those who didn't even know they wanted to be in a play. It's a very eclectic mix."

"For some, it will be deeply significant that it is a Passion play," she says. "For others, it will be more about making a play. There is something magical about bringing people together. It is an act of faith that we get it together at all."

The Last Supper she describes as an "emblem of this philosophy of inclusivity. . . I think we had a beautiful Last Supper [in 2013]: a canon, a lay member of the Third Order of St Francis, dual heritage, ex-homeless, those in recovery, believers and not sure, age range of 15 years to 80 plus, and, oh, yes, a woman Jesus, all at the same table."

The play, now titled Through the Eyes of a Child, is different every time, because it deliberately has a different actor playing Jesus. "It forces us to change, to avoid falling into some comfortable pattern, and it doesn't give a fixed image," she says.

"When we chose a woman Jesus, it was not because the actor was a woman, but because she was best in the role. She inevitably brought out a different aspect, and gave a different dimension to the story. Another year, we had a Nigerian actor, and that also gave a different slant to the whole piece. Art is only ever a representation, and our production is an artistic interpretation of the Passion story."

MUIRURI'S mother died during the build-up to the very first play, in 2008. "I had written the play as far as the crucifixion, but the final part was written after she died. It became for me, as a writer, a way of dealing with her death."

It influenced her writing a great deal. "After watching both my parents die, I was struck by how something tangible had left them. I thought, as I sat with my father, of the words: 'He gave up the ghost.' I had never considered the physicality of the phrase until that moment.

"My father had gone, left, although I sat with his body, holding his hand."

The child in the play (playedthis year by Muiruri's nine-year-old daughter, Gabriel) has a guardian angel that accompanies her throughout, answering questions, leaving her only to join Jesus and the other angels at the end.

The child asks the angel: "Aren't you coming with me?" to which the Angel responds: "Of course. Just because you won't see me any more, doesn't mean I'm not here." "That final line always does it for me," Muiruri says.

The Poole Passion is now a significant event, incorporating film and son et lumière, and is growing further every year. Arts Council England funding enables the engagement of nine young interns to work on the production for a very modest fee, gaining valuable experience.

"We do our play. Everyone takes much reduced fees, mostly it's done through a lot of love and commitment." For the first time this year, it has a full musical score composed by Richard McLester, director of music at St Peter's, Parkstone, who has been on the team since the start.

Stuart Glossop, a professional actor, who played Judas in 2013, is Jesus this year. He was the suggestion of the long-standing assistant director of the Poole Passion, Christopher Mellows, who sadly died before this year's production.

"Chris was able to ask him before he died," Muiruri says. "He is definitely the right choice: he is not your archetypal-looking Jesus - whatever that is."

For more information on John Middleton, visit www.composersalliance.com.
For more information on the Poole Passion, visit www.poolepassion.com.

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