Passion Plays Reviewed
At ENO, Dulwich, Greenwich & Elsewhere
Tom Sutcliffe reviews the ENO production of Bach's St
John Passion is not an opera. But when English National Opera included it in
their season of opera productions, as a way of acknowledging the 250th
anniversary of the great composer's death this year, they had a sell-out.
performance coincided with the Easter Vigil. The reviews were extremely mixed.
For agnostic and non-churchgoing critics, the material demanded a certain
consent on the part of its audience. What were they supposed to make of it? The
St John Passion on stage seemed to require a response, an involvement - and
something more positive than mere admiration and appreciation.
Passions have almost never been performed liturgically, since they were first
created for the Lutheran Easter in the early 18th century. When they were
re-discovered in the 19th century, they were treated as heavy oratorios. But
their mixture of narrative, drama and discursive expressive comment amounts to
something like a religious meditation.
religious pictures in galleries which are usually admired for their "beauty"
and mastery of technique, Bach's two great Passion settings are widely loved
and acknowledged as masterpieces. Religious pictures and liturgical music can
evidently be quite a challenge for people who have rejected the imaginative
world of religion and faith. Such people would seem to prefer it if great
artistic things are left safely enshrined, mysterious yet not personally
applicable. However, in the great "cathedral-like" space of the London
Coliseum, and delivered in a passionately involving way, the questions that
Bach posed demanded some kind of genuine answer.
It was a
highly significant response to the end of the second millennium that both the
National Gallery, with Neil MacGregor's exhibition Seeing Salvation, and the
English National Opera just round the corner with Bach's St John Passion,
should have chosen to present an explanation and a staging of religious
questions at the very heart of the national artistic agenda.
Warner's production followed the precedent set by Jonathan Miller when he
"semi-staged" the Matthew Passion at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street. Chorus and
players were in modern dress. There was very little by way of decor - though
Warner had some video effects on the backcloth. Pilate was first seen putting
on his tie and jacket and straightening his clothes before he had to deal with
the interruption and duty of examining Jesus. Peter's betrayal was indicated
with a crowd gathered round some rostrums - no fire needed, because the fire in
Peter's heart burnt so fiercely. The descriptive response Bach makes to this
betrayal was delivered with devastating expressiveness by the singer Mark
Padmore in the Evangelist's role.
with the John Passion had a much tighter and more limited piece of Bible story
to outline than Miller. The Matthew Passion includes the visually memorable
Last Supper narrative, whereas the John is just the arrest, trial and
crucifixion - with Jesus giving up the Spirit when he has completed the great
task of human life.
opera stage was able to both evoke the events and stage the suggested interior
reaction to the narrative - as Bach so superlatively portrays possible
responses in the heart-stopping arias. The tenor response to the scourging of
Jesus is a text which, in English, has always been suppressed. Its pietistic
imagery of Jesus's flayed flesh going directly to heaven to plead for our
sinfulness, was too much for Victorian taste - and, even here in a new
translation, the production baulked at the ideas in the original German. The
scourging was barely physically represented. Faking it on stage would have been
embarrassing, and the naked actor's back writhing gently was much criticised -
as were the flowers laid at the end by individual chorus and cast members,
while they sang the great lullaby with which Bach suggests the eternal divine
an echo of Princess Di? I think it was not only that. It was individuals shown
making their own response as best they could, singing their lines on the move
all over the stage, not gathered in serried chorus ranks. As Christians our job
is to respond alone, for the ultimate response must be individual.
the message and requirement of Easter for each one of us.
Graham Cowley reports on PASSION PLAY 2000 in
Easter in Dulwich will never be the same. The culmination of more than a year's
work, Passion Play 2000 took over the area for three days.
different events, in eleven different places, involving a local cast of 80
actors and a Millennium Passion Choir of another 80. The opening, on the
evening of Maundy Thursday, as the choir sang the Last Supper episodes from
Bach's St Matthew Passion while actors in biblical dress illustrated the story,
had great beauty. Nothing, however, could have prepared the audience for the
emotional impact of the Last Supper in the upper room of the Crown &
Greyhound in Dulwich Village. Packed round Jesus and the disciples - now in
modern dress and using modern language - the story was throat-catchingly
immediate and many of the audience were in tears by the end of the short scene.
made Passion Play 2000 different was a determination to tell the story
of Jesus' death and resurrection as if it was happening now. Jesus' tormented
anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane was swiftly overtaken as he was besieged by
a mob with torches led by uniformed military police, who dragged him away to be
examined. Good Friday started with his Trial, where the audience was drawn into
the battle of wills between Pilate and Caiaphas while Jesus, bloody from the
police beatings, stood movingly aloof. He carried his cross to Golgotha in St
Francis' Gardens outside Sainsbury's in Dog Kennel Hill. The unforgettable
sight of three young men hanging in agony on the crosses and then taken down
lifeless led to more tears from the hundreds watching.
evening the Cross, still smeared with blood, was re-erected in
Church as the Choir sang Bach's version of Good Friday's events.
dawn on Easter Day, hundreds gathered in the garden outside
St Stephen's Church
by Dulwich Wood to see the final act. A despairing Mary Magdalene was greeted
first by the Angel and then by her risen Lord, who appeared to the sound of the
dawn chorus. St Stephen's dawn service was attended by so many that every
service sheet was shared by two or three.
Passion Play 2000 was the inspiration of actress and director
Tricia Thorns. The cast, led by John Lofthouse as Jesus, was drawn from the
community of Dulwich, as was the army of helpers behind the scenes.
will never forget it.
The Rev David Fudger reflects on the Greenwich Passion
Saved by the rain! Well we were - as thousands gathered in Greenwich Park on
Good Friday for an outdoor performance of the Mystery plays. And it didn't rain
- thank God!
the three-hour event, seven short plays depicting seven miracle scenes from St
John's Gospel were acted out. Each miracle was performed seven times, giving
the audience the opportunity to move round the park and watch the different
'Christs' and their casts perform. After an interval, the cast and crew of
nearly 1000 performed the final passion narrative and Ben Thomas, the only
professional actor, played the final Jesus and was the only one brave enough to
mount the 20 foot cross at Calvary! During the event live music ranged from
steel drumming to gospel, rap to folk, with Jewish dancers and children's'
an ambitious production, put together by a brilliant director, John Doyle, who
has in the past masterminded the York and Chester Mystery Plays; and Greenwich,
Blackheath and Charlton Christian Alliance. But in the end everything depended
on the weather. After 1000's of hours of practice time the event didn't have a
dress rehearsal. It was just performed live - once! Afterwards people clamoured
for a once a year production. If only! Next year we'll go back to our parishes
and see if our portrayal of the Holy Week narrative could be even more
imaginative, given our excursions this year.
of the 'Jesus' players, the event was a wonderful opportunity for proclamation
of the last hours of Jesus' life. It was intensely moving, especially at the
feet washing, and reminded me once again just what being part of the 'Body of
Christ' was all about - given that at least half of the cast would not consider
themselves to be Christian.
David Prothero of St Antony's, Hamsey Green looks back
at A Very Private Passion
Very Private Passion - a new play for Lent and Passiontide performed at various
centres across the Diocese in April
arrive and settle, maybe with your own private version of the Passiontide
sequence, carefully stored in that section of your memory under 'What you think
spend a challenging first half hour holding on to what you think you know
before becoming unsettled, progressively challenged and not a little perplexed
as you enter the world and minds of the Bermondsey Two, aka Swerve and Kai, as
they are confronted by the enigmatic and ultra-challenging H.
marvel at the simplicity and immediacy of Rebecca Lublinski's production of
Michael Wicherek's new play before you slip into a phase of utter
self-consciousness as you are catapulted into the meta-language and
sub-cultural labyrinth and agony which passes for the inner urban torment of
the Two. In turn they both present us with fast moving unfinished thoughts and
unconsidered acts of aggression against the silent and seemingly passive
presence of H.
memory struggles to download the orthodoxy of the Passion, only to be met by
the blunt instrument of Swerve's frustrations and prejudices which are more
than complemented by Kai's need to rationalise and move on.
you're screaming for help whilst at the same time sensing that there's a deeper
meaning - somewhere. And as that Bermondsey night progresses you can just begin
to sense a hint of emerging jumbled half meanings and maybes as you ponder and
sift the machine gun dialogue. H's silence provoking the two Bermondsey Pilates
to the twin points of exasperation and possible terminal violence; the dilemma
of whether to love or be loved; the victory of ignorance over rationality; our
ability to reject in favour of our preoccupation with our own pathetic
existence. It's all there - somewhere.
answer? Go home, sleep, wake, and pause to reflect deeply upon a near-life
experience which has left you wanting to see it all over again, to replay and
hit the pause button at your leisure.
it worked? Of course it has because each and every one of us has stopped our
lives this Passiontide, and contemplated upon the power of silent weakness, and
our knowledge that we're loved by a personal and waiting God.