The Oxford Passion Play

Featuring a large community chorus. Part of 'Oxfordshire 2007'.
Oxford Castle

August 7, 2007
I was raised Irish Catholic on a diet of more film and stage versions of the life of Jesus than you could shake a bishop's crozier at. Mostly they tried for spiritual glories and just ended up with windy pomposity; they tried for humour by taking awkwardly spoken lines from some elderly translation of the gospels and tacking on inappropriate laughter. They either tried for Jesus as ass-kicking revolutionary and ended up with a mixture of Ben Hur and Conan the Barbarian, or plumped for Jesus as gentle pacifist and ended up with someone so pale and wan you were surprised He had the energy to get out of bed, never mind start a world religion. They should all have seen Creation Theatre's The Oxford Passion, a production of the central story of a religion which has nothing preachy, stuffy or po-faced about it, and instead hits you in the chest and the hindbrain with the force of myth. (And I'm not talking the silly modern usage of 'myth' to mean fallacy here.)

Tom Peters, previously seen as a sort of English Messiah in the lead role of Creation's Robin Hood, plays Jesus with mesmerising charisma, pulling off that mixture of righteous anger, painfully palpable compassion and human warmth that was missing from all those films of my childhood. He is haunted by Dami Olukoya's Angel of Death, with a spiky otherworldly grace and a richly emotive singing voice. Focusing on four of the twelve disciples was a good call. They were all well-drawn, but I particularly enjoyed Jonathan Baker's Thomas, suspicious of his own deep-seated need to believe. Both Marys – mother (Caroline Devlin) and Magdalene (Natalie Garrett) – were also great; passionate women rebelling against the onward march of destiny.

Lizzie Hopley's script is based on a brand-new translation of the New Testament. The language is contemporary, but never cringily so, and the message of non-retaliation and forgiveness as a stop to the cycle of violence comes across as though new-minted. But this is not a dry, worthy moral lesson. It is an evening of theatre at once heart-wrenching, boisterous and uplifting; a play about God which gets you thinking about what it means to be human.

August 28, 2007
The Passion - the tale of Christ’s last days on earth - is performed on the site of Oxford Castle’s medieval chapel. All that remains now of St George’s Chapel is the underground crypt that lies beneath the outdoor stage.

The show has an 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 a 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. Later he shields 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.

Since the 13th Century, the staging of these pageants has drawn 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, crafting enthralling masks for the choir and sourcing gnarled bare branches for the minimal props. Aidan Treays’ stirring choreography makes for menacing crowd scenes, particularly from the choir. The swathes of dangerous, decadent red scarves initially draped over the crowd are later swapped for pure pacific white scarves, matching the white of Jesus’ collarless shirt. Wearing Everyman clothes, Jesus offers the message as white flags are flown that no one should get in the way of true peace. 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 led by David Edwards, deserve an ovation for delivering yet another quality outdoor show in such an inclement Summer. The unseasonal weather does offer atmosphere to the text. The sun beams a spotlight on the searing solo of the Angel of Death (Dami Olukaya) as the performance begins. During the show, a cold grey wind rattles as 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 by. But Jesus stresses ‘this is not a rebellion that is won with weapons’. 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. Mary Magdalen (Natalie Garrett) takes us on the longest emotional journey. Movingly, this woman with a colourful past is excluded from being accepted into the temple. Garrett brings an informed richness to the text and is herself an ordained minister.

Life enhancing lessons are offered for committed non-believers. 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 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 phenomenal as Jesus and inspirational in Peter Lole’s rousing musical finale of ‘Kyrie eleison’!
I found the reviews here misleading. If an amateur company had put on this production I'd have thought it was OK - no more. As it stands, The Oxford Passion was not up to scratch in terms of the acting and timing. Based on the reviews here I'd taken a party to see The Passion. I wish I hadn't. I hesitated about writing this but I feel that the public should be warned before they part with their money.
Truly captivating and mesmorizing performance. Worth a second visit !
I went to see The Oxford Passion last night and it is truly the ultimate piece of theatre! You will be sorely missing out if you do not go and see this production!

Go, go, go!
Do go to see this play. Creation have done a brave thing in putting together a modern mystery play and it deserves a big audience. What is more, you will surely enjoy it.
The production has all the creativity that we expect from this theatre company. It finds a political message for 2007 in Jesus' ministry; Mary Magdalene is presented as you might expect in a post Da Vinci Code world, and it adds to this feminism by giving prominence to the role of Mary, Jesus' mother. It is also funny. But none of this 'modernity' is forced and it treats its subject matter with total respect.
Tom Peters' performance as a passionate and mischievous Jesus is outstanding.
I loved it and I am an atheist. I am sure believers would find nothing offensive in this presentation and might even find inspiration.
Don't miss it.
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