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
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
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