IF YOU’VE READ the first blog in this series, you’ll recall that I’m taking part in The Nottingham Passion theatre production at St Mary’s in the Lace Market this Easter. In the first blog I shared some thoughts about taking on the role of Jesus and how live theatre and storytelling can be so powerful in ministry.
I also shared a bit about how my faith has been (and continues to be) a real struggle and how, as I’ve gone through tough times, there have been long phases where I’ve questioned how there can be a loving God when there is so much suffering in the world. I know I’m not alone in wondering why so many appalling things seem to happen to so many non-appalling people while real evil appears to flourish and prosper.
I explained that my perspective has often been that of a frustrated human being remonstrating with God about how he could surely make all the bad things go away if he really wanted to. I explained how taking on the role of Jesus has pushed me to try to look more carefully at what God’s perspective on these matters might be.
I also suggested that, whether a person has a faith or no faith at all, there is at least broad common ground to be occupied when considering the figure of Jesus. Whether you believe Jesus to be the son of God, or instead to have been a mere human being who had some interesting things to say about love and morality, he surely must, as a minimum, have been a wholly decent man with decent intentions. Historical accounts appear to show that Jesus knowingly took actions which led to his public humiliation and execution, all with the apparent motivation of wanting to save human lives, human souls, and make all things well in the end. So, whatever your feelings are about this man, more likely than not you’d want him on your side if the chips were down.
Before I continue, I promise there are no theological or philosophical bear traps lying in wait for you as you read. In fact, here are some rules of engagement for this blog and the others which follow:
- I’m not going to try to answer all (any?) of life’s big questions for you, though I hope there may be something in what I’m writing which prompts you to explore some of these questions more deeply;
- I’m not going to preach to you – I have a faith, but this stuff is aimed at everyone, whatever their point of view;
- There is no pre-planned structure to this series which ends with me ‘seeing the light’ through my experience of playing Jesus. There’ll be no fluffy, gift-wrapped testimony from me at the end. That would be so twee, and perhaps a little cynical. So, to be clear. I genuinely don’t know how these pieces of writing will develop;
- I’m not about to get all ‘pretentious artist’ on you. I’m not that person, and I don’t do this acting lark for a living. I’m a part-time writer and performer who sincerely just wants to do the best job he can, as honestly as he can.
So, with all that said, some other helpful basics. It strikes me that I’ve not yet explained to you what passion plays are.
Online resources such as those provided by The Passion Trust will give you the detail, but in brief, passion plays are dramatic presentations of the parts of the Bible that tell of Jesus’ final days of suffering and death. Performing these events in the run up to Easter is a long-established tradition across the UK and Europe.
For this instalment, we’ll look at the first big event – Palm Sunday and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem – and what this experience may have been like from the perspective of the central figure in all of it.
Disclaimer: remember rule number 4 about not getting ‘all pretentious’? That’s still true, but any theatre geek mafia reading this might accuse me of straying into ‘substitution’ territory (if you really want to know what I’m on about here, google the words ‘Uta Hagen method’).
Put simply (and obviously), in preparing to portray Jesus as authentically as possible, I have no comparable lived experience of being fully God and fully human to draw upon, in the same way that I had no comparable lived experience of hanging out at the top of a beanstalk with a golden egg-laying chicken to draw upon the last time I did village panto. Both acting roles present giant challenges. This is an objectively excellent joke intended to:
- avoid accusations of being just some bonkers old luvvie and
- completely annoy the theatre geek mafia.
I wasn’t the world’s most attentive drama degree student, and I found a lot of actor theory quite tedious. There, I’ve said it.
But any truthful storyteller needs to find some points of authentic engagement and connection with the character whose story they’re telling, otherwise the character’s words are just words on a page, or words in an ancient book somewhere, meaningless in a modern world. So I need to try to feel this stuff somehow, which is hard work.
I don’t think that what Jesus said is meaningless in a modern world, but I accept that others do, and that others are just indifferent. Come see the show anyway. See how the story feels to you when it’s lifted off the page.
Point is, as I’ve read into what Jesus did and went through during the events of Passion Week (and tried to work out how to bring over a sense of this in performance) several aspects of the story have really resonated with me, with some packing real emotional punch.
It doesn’t make its way into our script, but there’s the not insignificant matter of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Oh, and predicting the future. The weeping is there in the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke just prior to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and it’s helped me to better understand something about the mixed (and quite possibly far from triumphant) human feelings Jesus is experiencing. It clearly isn’t all hurrahs and hosannas. There’s something more nuanced and bittersweet taking place.
‘If you had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes,’ Jesus says, before crying his own eyes out.
‘The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls.’
I think they must have skipped this bit when they taught me about Easter at primary school, cunningly replacing it with chocolate and bunnies.
Biblical scholars believe that Jesus is predicting the Great Siege of Jerusalem here, in which the Roman army captured Jerusalem and destroyed both the city and its temple. History records the siege as taking place in AD 70, some 40 years after Jesus weeps over the city. Whether we accept Jesus’ words as prophecy or simply reject them out of hand, from a storytelling perspective the key trigger for our central character’s extraordinary outburst appears to be found in the words:
‘You (Jerusalem) did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.’
Jesus weeps primarily because the people don’t know him … at all. They don’t recognise him for who and what he is … at all. They fatally misunderstand him, and this comes with consequences. There’s nothing Jesus can do to avert what is coming, and it’s breaking his heart.
Jesus weeps at the coming destruction these people will face. On Palm Sunday, he knows that he’s riding into Jerusalem towards certain death, and that there are people singing hosanna who, in a matter of days, will join the mob screaming for his execution. Before he even gets to Jerusalem in the bible, Jesus has already predicted his death on at least three occasions.
Palm Sunday is a breathtaking, bittersweet balance of sorrow and joy.
Who’d be a prophet, heh?
Thing is, I have a theory that we’re all prophets sometimes. Seeing the future can be a really tough gig.
For some of us, seeing the future may come in the certainty we have that the dearest one in our lives, for whom we would do anything and everything, will go through such anguish as they fight a serious illness, fight with all their strength to remain with us, for we are their dearest one also.
It may come in the certainty we have that another dear one needs us to be their foundation and strength through something we simply cannot repair for them, whether that be another long-term or permanent illness, or a failing relationship which is now in free fall, hurtling downward onto jagged rocks.
For some of us, seeing the future may come in the certainty we have that our young ones, at some point, are going to make some decisions which will unravel and end badly, but that we must give them the freedom to make those decisions for themselves as we were given that same freedom once. If they’re ever to learn strength and resilience, we need to let them go, let them try, come what may. We know they cannot run until they can walk, cannot fly until they can run, and we dearly want them to fly. But until they discover what true hurt and disappointment feel like, and come to understand each of these in their own way, on their own terms, this just isn’t possible.
Oh! The frustration we have that we can’t just fix things for the people we love, that we can’t just make the pain go away, that there isn’t more we can do. If only. If only.
If only we could try to take their place.
Of course you and I can see the future, albeit within our strict human limitations. We’re all prophets, to a degree. Each one of us. And we walk among prophets, every day.
Sheesh. Fair takes it out of you, this substitution business.
To finish, some insight from the first week of rehearsals. We’re not rehearsing in the main church yet, but in one of the adjoining rooms. There are various photos from the rehearsals above – that’s me cross-legged on the floor in the top photo, which I’m calling ‘parable on the parquet.’
Before we get to Palm Sunday in the show, there’s a prelude where Jesus is introduced and the disciples are first called, then we fast forward three years to triumphal entry.
Director James Pacey is keen that the dialogue isn’t rushed, and that every time Jesus meets someone for the first time (new disciple or otherwise) there is a fresh joy, a fresh delight, in him at that encounter. It’s a powerful concept to consider that, even in a multitude, Jesus can pick someone out and speak with them like they’re the only person in the room. It’s like there are no anonymous faces in the crowd with him. Also, to meet a person for the first time and see them, know them, instantly. To see the light in every soul, and want to join with it.
If Jesus has a superpower on Palm Sunday, it’s that he can see true colours. It’s a superpower he may share with Cyndi Lauper.
And what a blessing, or maybe a curse, to be able to see the beauty, utterly untarnished, in everything and everyone. To see the absolute capacity for beauty, and love, and joy, in every human being. To see the glorious, magnificent colours pouring out of everyone and everything, despite the grime, the hurt, the darkness. To see the colours in humanity that humanity can’t see itself, to see the awesome possibility in every single one of them, but to know how it all ends for them anyway. The heartbreak, the agony, of knowing that the beloved, the treasured, the cherished, just can’t comprehend how very beautiful they are, may never come to comprehend it.
Just his words on their own. Take out the theology, the doctrine, the dogma, the rules, the ignorance, the in-fighting. Strip it all back. It really isn’t Jesus who’s the problem. It’s people, and institutions, it’s us. It’s what we’ve made of him.
At they’re purest, at they’re rawest, his are some of the most emotionally intelligent, superhumanly insightful words ever uttered. Reading about him, it’s like he heard people at a different frequency, saw people on a different wavelength. We see difference, and division. He sees unity, and harmony. He sees all the colours of the spectrum in super high definition. We can’t see the spectrum for looking at the grey clouds obscuring our view and, sadly, some of us seem to be content with those grey clouds being there, unwilling to look underneath, for fear of what we may find, for fear of having to make a change.
I love this quote in the Thomas Merton book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, (and this fella must know what he’s talking about on this subject because he’s a Trappist monk). Thomas Merton had this to say about the people he saw walking past him on a busy street corner:
- ‘In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realise what we all are. … If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more hatred, no more greed. … There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.’
I like to think there’s something of Thomas Merton in all of us, and perhaps something of Jesus in us too, because this is how I think Jesus must have seen people.
So, anyway – all those things you’ve just read, but bringing those to bear on playing Jesus. If only I’d had this approach to Jack and Beanstalk, I could have turned panto into a serious art form.
Oh no, I couldn’t!
Once again, thanks so much for staying with me this far. More to follow.
Next time. Jesus gets angry. Grr.
copyright (c) carterbloke, 2023
Links – Nottingham Passion
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