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Theatre: Riding Lights’ Breaking Day

26 March 2021

Pat Ashworth watches a Passion play online

Riding Lights

Tom Peters as Pilate in Breaking Day

Tom Peters as Pilate in Breaking Day

NECESSITY drove theatre online: what other recourse was there in a lockdown situation? But, judging by successes such as BBC1’s Staged, directed remotely and filmed individually by the actors themselves, virtual theatre has become an art form in itself.

This is how Riding Lights have made Breaking Day, and it’s a powerful illustration of how creatively and innovatively this has all developed. The company have produced a Passion play every Easter for the past 40 years, and Les Ellison’s script in its original form was written for conventional staging. It’s a three-hander between Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem; his wife, Claudia, at home in Caesarea; and their servant girl, Hannah, who is with Pilate.

Because the story is played out in two locations and because the online audience will be used to Zoom, it’s not at all strange that husband and wife should be communicating in that split screen, full-gaze, no-escape kind of way. That isn’t overt here: it is simply understood, and it makes for both intimacy and intensity. It’s clever, too, and illusory: a character can lean into the picture, for instance, as though putting their head round a door.

This is an impatient Pilate, who isn’t taking unrest in the city seriously and despises the people he is ruling. He’s image-conscious, slapping on the aftershave as he’s dressing and talking, and fussy about his beard, his tie, his cufflinks. The perceptive and articulate Claudia is at home in a bathrobe, haunted by dreams, resorting to pills, and fearful of her husband’s blundering into something that he is making no attempt to understand.

Then there’s Hannah, who has met Christ, heard his teaching, and overheard his prayers at Gethsemane. In relaying what she knows, while she’s kneading bread or cleaning shoes, she becomes Christ himself, and her artlessness translates into his own clarity and enigma. Rachel Hammond plays her with a plainness and steadfastness that are very compelling.

Watching it all unravel is gripping. Tom Peters gives a magnificent performance as Pilate, a man visibly losing his grip and deaf to any advice. He is almost a Macbeth figure at times: when his hands and face are bloodied from contact with the broken Christ, he scrubs in frenzy at his nails and later presents clean hands to the mob. “Why in God’s name would he want to die?” he expostulates.

Riding LightsGrace Cookey-Gam (left) and Rachel Hammond as Claudia and Hannah in Breaking Day

Grace Cookey-Gam as Claudia is given some passionate and beautiful poetic language to work with. There is a rising intensity as she tries to make Pilate really understand the import of what is happening: “He is denouncing our whole economy! The way the world works. . . You have to make it stop.”

It is through her dreams that much that is unspoken is understood. Having washed his hands of the whole messy business, Pilate is confident that there will be be “no more surprises”. But it’s Claudia who gets the killer exit line: “I saw tombs, graves burst open and the dead walk free, singing, dancing. And I saw the curtain, the veil that separates us from the invisible God, torn down. And I saw the invisible God and he saw me. And I recognised him and he looked like the Teacher. Exactly like the Teacher.”

Directed by Paul Burbridge and designed by Sean Cavanagh, it is in three parts and has a running time of 45 minutes. It’s available to church groups and to individuals watching at home until 15 April. Riding Lights have subsidised it as an Easter offering: all booking details on the company website.


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