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Passion plays ‘stop people in their tracks’

24 January 2014

By Pat Ashworth


In the midst of them: James Burke-Dunsmore playing Jesus in the Wintershall Passion in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday 2012

In the midst of them: James Burke-Dunsmore playing Jesus in the Wintershall Passion in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday 2012

WHEN it comes to telling the Christian story, nothing makes greater impact, or has a higher profile, than a Passion play: it stops people in their tracks, delegates to a conference run by the Passion Trust all agreed on Saturday.

The Trust, a charity that supports and promotes performances of Passion plays, including the Wintershall and Trafalgar Square productions, brought in a range of experts to offer advice to those mounting a play, from funding to engaging the community and working with local media and councils. Seventeen plays are happening in the UK in 2014, in places as diverse as Liverpool and Littlehampton.

In Poole, the biennial Passion play began in 2008, and came about by chance, the artistic director of Poole Passion, Sharon Muiri, said. As associate lecturer in applied drama and theatre-in-education at Winchester University, she was inspired by Bill Viola's art installation Passion to develop what was going to be a series of tableaux, but which became a well-funded and highly acclaimed multimedia presentation on the streets.

She engaged a cast from all sections of the community, including disaffected young people and adults recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, with whom she already worked in a freelance capacity. "Creating a community is as important as getting a play together," she told the conference.

She writes the script "according to who I have"; has had a female Jesus - "simply because she read in the part one day, and it just felt right"; and feels that one of the most powerful elements of a Passion play is "the expression of grief and loss experienced together in a safe environment".

The writer, director, and actor James Burke-Dunsmore has played the part of Jesus for more than 17 years, and regularly performs in Guildford, Trafalgar Square, and Wintershall. He has been involved in 68 productions, which include the recent Jesus Street Shows, in Cape Town.

It did not matter how extraordinary the actor playing Jesus was, he said. "If the audience treat him as Jesus, he will be Jesus. What happens around him is what's important." No other story challenged like the Passion story, he said.

"I'm always looking for new people to help me describe Christ through their own experience. Be bold, be courageous. Start with scripture, take massive liberties only if there is a shared understanding of the story in the audience, keep production values high, and always ask: who are you playing to?"

He, too, emphasised the element of grief and loss; and spoke of an elderly woman who told him, "I'll only come if you use enough blood," meaning: make it real. "It takes a massive amount of courage to meet the challenge at that level," he said. "There's no point in a flimsy Caiaphas or Herod."

The stage and screen actor Israel Oyelumade, whose Christian musical, Love Beyond, is embarking on a tour of the UK in October, and who played Jesus in the Winchester Passion in 2008, recalled how all the spectators had wept as he passed them, carrying the cross down a main street. "Put the words [of the Gospel] in any setting, and they will still do the same thing," he said.


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