On the site of Oxford Castle’s medieval Chapel, ‘Passion’ is performed telling the tale of Christ’s last days on earth. All that remains now of St George’s Chapel is the underground crypt that lies beneath the outdoor stage, supporting the show’s exuberant spirit that strengthens any faith you may have walked into the space with. The four Gospels, as recently translated by Nicholas King SJ, are dramatised in the Passion Play, a format used originally to educate the masses about the content of the Bible. Vibrant pageants include the opening scene of Jesus throwing the money lenders out of the temple and later shielding an adulterer from being stoned, offering the advice ‘If I were you I wouldn’t want to go through that again’. Lizzie Hopley’s comfortably humorous script accentuates the human emotions the Biblical characters face in this modern interpretation. Mary Mother of Jesus (Caroline Devlin) wrings out every last shred of pain as she struggles to accept the unstoppable tragedy facing her only son. Since the 13th Century, staging of these pageants draws on the talents of often hundreds of local people, making the Passion Play one of the earliest examples of community theatre. Local Designers Lucy Wilkinson and Abby Price texture the stage with a rural finish, craft enthralling masks for the choir and source gnarled bare branches for the minimal props. Aidan Treays’ stirring choreography makes for menacing crowd scenes, from the choir dressed in earthy tones of soil, a substance ritually spread over areas in need of purification. The swathes of dangerous, decadent red scarves initially draped over the crowd are later swapped for pure pacified white scarves, matching the white of Jesus’ collarless shirt. Wearing everyman clothes, Jesus offers the message that no one should get in the way of true peace as white flags are flown. However in spite of the many dazzling miracles staged to entertain the audience, the scarves do not stay white for long.
Director Charlotte Conquest and indeed the whole Creation Crew, the FOH Team lead by David Edwards, deserve an ovation for delivering a third quality show in one inclement Summer. The unseasonal weather offers atmosphere to the text. The sun beams a spotlight on the searing solo of the Angel of Death (Dami Olukaya) as the performance begins with the Passion people promenading in the castle courtyard. As the Angel plays the role of Guardian Angel Gabrielle to Jesus during the show, a cold grey wind rattles when she drives the Saviour to accept his destiny. Strain is placed on the love the Disciples feel for Jesus as he appears to be just letting his crucifixion happen. Judas stresses about the political advantages the Messiah is letting slip away from the group. But Jesus stresses ‘this is not a rebellion that is won with weapons’. Mary Magdalen takes us on the longest emotional journey. Movingly, this woman with a colourful past is excluded from being accepted into the temple. The actress brings an informed richness to the text and is herself an ordained minister. Life enhancing lessons are offered for committed non-believers in equal measure. The value of faith itself is shown by Peter, he briefly falters in his belief half way through his journey walking over water. He falls in. The power of the show comes from the bloody crucifixion scene and the inevitable return of the red scarves. With their leader no longer present on earth, Mary Magdalen (Natalie Garrett) draws us almost to help her pray as she struggles to love and forgive. In returning from the dead, Jesus is unflinching in his parting shot, as he instructs his troops to ‘fish for your lives’. A subtle realisation that the word ‘Jesus’ has been barely uttered pays off in the final moments. As Peter, played with strong integrity by Tim Crowther, asks of the leader, ‘what do we call you?’ The response is, ‘I’ll leave that up to you!’ Whatever name you assign to the spiritual source, Tom Peters is a good match as Jesus and inspires meaning in Peter Lole’s rousing musical finale of ‘Kyrie eleison’!
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