JAMES PACEY has been refining his Passion play since 2011. Its first incarnation, The Newark Passion, was followed by The Cambridge Passion, The Hucknall Passion, and other stagings, a pedigree that rapidly secured two sell-out performances last weekend at St Mary’s in the Lace Market, the civic church of Nottingham.
Here — to the bemusement of passers-by — the long queue to be admitted to the 90-minute performance snaked far outside the churchyard to the street beyond. It’s something Nottingham is more used to seeing outside Rock City.
This is a highly stylised play for a community cast. It has no set and almost no props, and much of it is delivered in a formal and detached style, daring the Gospel words to speak for themselves. Aside from the key protagonists — Jesus, of course, with Judas and Pilate — the individual characters are not fleshed out to any degree.
That’s a bit of a gamble, given the interpretations that we have become most familiar with: the raw, earthy Mystery cycles, and the gutsy, contemporary Passions of Liverpool, Manchester, and the rest. I missed the visceral. There was power in the silence, the stillness, the shadows of this grand and lofty building, but I wanted my heart to sink to my boots and my hands go to my face at the enormity re-enacted before me.
It has a cinematic score, with resonances of epic films such as King of Kings and Ben-Hur; and the lighting floods the chancel in cold blue or hot red, up-lights the pillars, and washes the audience in white light at key moments such as the arrest of Jesus. A single spotlight in a dramatically darkened church highlights the face of a distraught and shaking Judas Iscariot.
He is played by Ade Andrews, a familiar figure in Nottingham, where he is one of two Robin Hoods, ambassadors for the city. He is jumpy from the moment of his betrayal, stooping to retrieve the bag of silver that the High Priests toss to the ground like meat to a dog. When he identifies Jesus in the Garden, there is no kiss: rather, it is Jesus who embraces Judas.
The figure of the risen Christ (Simon Carter) in The Nottingham Passion
The play opens with John’s baptising of Jesus. Simon Carter’s Christ is a likeable, contemporary figure, a man who has the knack of making any individual he is talking to feel as though they are the only person in the world that matters. He looks into their souls, and tells the parable of the vineyard to a couple of children like a dad reading a bedtime story.
But his mildness vanishes when he rages at the Temple desecration, and, in Gethsemane, his fierce agony is less a prayer, more a soliloquy. The most telling moment is when Barabbas, who keeps his head down while his future is in the balance, is freed. He sidles past a Jesus whose direct gaze compels him to pause.
It is Pilate (Iain Turner), cold and brusque, who looks Jesus straight in the eye as he demands, “What is truth?” and dismisses the matter as a religious one that has nothing to do with him. He’s a Roman, he says curtly. Why should it?
There is no crucifixion scene. There is a chill factor in the objective voice in the distant background which informs us how a crucifixion was carried out, and imagination comes into play as we hear the sound of the nails. Heads turned on this occasion to see whether there was anything to be seen.
The absence of this dimension, though, has the effect of reducing characters such as Mary the mother of Jesus to a very fleeting appearance in the story, moving us on to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, where she physically embraces the risen Christ. Then it is briskly onward to Emmaus, Thomas, and the Great Commission.
My memorable moment, as an onlooker, was the point at which Christ stumbled and fell on the road to Calvary. He fell within inches of my seat on the aisle, and his heavy cross rebounded. Peter (Becky Bloor) came alive for me, too, with the taut cry in the upper room of “My faith is all I have.”
The imperative was a mission one when The Newark Passion had that first outing. It always will be. This was a hugely appreciative and, I would guess, a predominantly Christian audience, for whom a focus on the truth of the gospel is a refreshing draught of water. It was in part funded by the Passion Trust and the diocese of Southwell & Nottingham.
Pacey, a former theatre practitioner and director, who was ordained in 2015 and is currently a hospital chaplain, has recently been appointed Canon Chancellor of Hereford Cathedral. I would put my money on a Hereford Passion at some point in the future.