By Nicolas Pierce
Making my way to the outdoor venue for Brighton’s Soul by The Sea passion play, a re-enactment of the last days of Christ on Easter Sunday, it was impossible not to notice that celebrations of the religious dimension of the Easter holidays have become sidelined. Situated some way out along the seafront and past the pier, the commercialised vanity fair of candyfloss and ghost trains which swallowed the majority of the bank holiday tourists, only the committed few (budding journos among their number) were likely to attend.
Although this made me fear that I might be the sole spectator, and a card-carrying atheist one at that, a substantial, eclectic and appreciative crowd quickly gathered. If I was to learn nothing else, I had at least discovered that there is still clearly a demand for religious theatre of this kind. Although it may occasionally pain people like myself to admit it, it is self-evident that there still exists a strong Christian contingent in this country, and despite an undeniable decline it’s destined to remain that way for some time.
Of course, the compelling thing about the Passion play is its history within the popular culture of England. Originating in church ritual, the tradition was revived in the late 19th century due to growing public interest, and Soul By The Sea certainly keeps up the civic spirit of such events with its cast and crew of local volunteers. With occasionally wooden acting and swallowed lines, this egalitarian production code certainly leant the production an amateurish feel, but I found this surprisingly endearing where a slick professional retelling would have probably put me off. It’s altogether more moving to witness a performance by local, ordinary people who genuinely believe in and care about the story, than it would be to suffer through the glossy but soulless affair that an Andrew Lloyd Webber might make of it.
That’s not to downplay the skill with which director and lead actor James Burke-Dunsmore and Assistant Director Emily Swain marshalled their resources to immerse the audience in the world of ancient Jerusalem. At the beginning, robed women weaved ecstatically through the throng, crying ‘Jesus is coming.’ I resisted the urge to reply that – going by the official start time at least – he was already ten minutes overdue. Later on, at the moment when Christ was forced to carry the instrument of his own death to Golgotha by his Roman executioners, the crowd were encouraged to form a loose procession in his wake towards the opposite end of the venue. Far more so than the Christian folk song that opened proceedings, or the exhortations to worship at the end, the involvement of the crowd in the narrative established the story’s universal currency, regardless of one’s beliefs or background.
Speaking of background, on the website for the event the organisers make a great deal of their efforts to bring together people from a ‘mix of backgrounds and nationalities, including those originally from Europe, the Philippines, Persia and Egypt’. The colour-blind and diverse casting that was on display is certainly something the makers can be proud of, turning the play into a celebration of our recent multicultural heritage at a time when it is regularly and unhelpfully attacked.
Aside from his directorial ability, Burke-Dunsmore also showed that he is a well-schooled veteran of the role of Christ. Although he has trodden the boards in adaptations of everything from Shakespeare to Dickens he has become most familiar as the face of Jesus, having portrayed the Messiah in countless stage versions of his life, as well as to millions via BBC television and radio broadcasts. Hearing him charismatically delivering Christ’s last teachings, one got a sense of the sincere and unapologetic personality he has displayed in recent interviews when asked about the supposed controversies surrounding passion plays.
One of these controversies has been the criticism from some quarters that the scene of the crucifixion itself, complete with a realistically bloodied and beaten Christ, would cause distress to small children. However, although there were certainly a fair few restless infants present, none of them seemed noticeably disturbed by what they were watching. The violence is certainly less than that in a lot of contemporary television, and any tears are likely to be offset by the happy ending. After all, if you think the story ends with Jesus on the cross, you must have nodded off during Sunday school lessons…
Speaking to The Guardian recently about these perennial contentions, Burke-Dunsmore said “”Whenever you turn on the radio there’s some sort of discussion about religion’s place in society. But when I’m standing in a rehearsal room with people teaching each other the teachings of Jesus, there is simply no argument. His words are the rich teaching which we can all live by – it is there to tap from and it is life changing.”
Ultimately, whatever one thinks about the question of Christianity in today’s society, the goodwill and enthusiasm of the Soul by the Sea passion play provided an admirable answer. And without a radio in sight.