IT’S GOING TO BE INTENSE. I write this at the beginning of production week for The Nottingham Passion at St Mary’s in the Lace Market, a wonderful and powerful new theatrical interpretation of the Passion Week story written and directed by Reverend James Pacey (with help, as I understand it, from some other people called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
Work on this project began, of course, much earlier for James and his team of organisers, but for me it started with a somewhat nervy audition at Nottingham Playhouse in November last year and my being cast in the role of Jesus.
If you’ve followed the whole series of blogs from the beginning, you’ll know how my faith has been (and continues to be) a 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 everywhere. If there is a loving God who has a ‘greater plan,’ how can this plan possibly be served by the seemingly inexplicable suffering of innocents alongside the rise and prospering of real evil in this world? I know I’m not alone in asking these, or similar, questions.
I’ve 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, and how he doesn’t seem to do that. I’ve explained how taking on the role of Jesus has pushed me to try to look more carefully at what God’s perspective on this might be.
So far in this series, with deployment of some carefully chosen ‘p’ words, I’ve written about:
- Jesus’ perspective on people (blog one);
- Jesus’ powers of prophecy (in the context of Palm Sunday – blog two);
- Jesus as a paradox (in the context of being fully God and fully human as we show in our take on the Cleansing of the Temple – blog three);
- Jesus as a leader, communicator and preparer (in the context of the Last Supper – blog four);
- Jesus’ pipeline to God and what happens when Jesus is made to feel abandonment (in the context of Gethsemane – blog five).
Welcome then to blog six, in which we consider the trials and crucifixion of Jesus and how in Passion Week, against a backdrop of betrayal, conspiracy and corruption, Jesus seeks to demonstrate to powerful people (through his willing sacrificial suffering for others) what absolute power truly is.
For those of you who prefer the visuals, here’s the story so far in a really quite groovy diagrammatic format.
Oh! Also! Let’s not forget those rules of engagement which have helped me (probably more so than you if I’m honest) to navigate my way through this series.
- 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.
The mental and spiritual agony endured by Jesus in Gethsemane (see blog five) leads, inevitably, to the punishing physical agony of his trials at the hands of the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate and, ultimately, his crucifixion. While the stylised nature of our production doesn’t show in graphic detail the torment and torture that Jesus undergoes, it doesn’t shy away from communicating the stark brutality of the suffering he endures. It’s so desperately sad to see what this innocent man is made to go through. It’s raw, it’s horrifying, and it’s upsetting.
It’s not the purpose of this series to dwell on the complex theology of what the cross represents, and the power of what this man strove to achieve for humanity on Calvary hill on that longest and darkest of nights some two thousand years ago. The purpose is to try to imagine the events of Passion Week from the perspective of Jesus and communicate what it’s like to try to bring that over in performance.
Whether you believe Jesus to have been the son of God, or merely a man, there is little doubt that Jesus had a profound and compelling reason for doing what he did. Jesus appears to have made a deliberate decision to die for everyone, irrespective of how we feel about that and whether or not we wanted him to. His was an act not only of astonishing compassion, but wilful substitution. In simple theological terms, the core message of the gospel is that Jesus takes on accountability for the garbage and mess of all humanity, on humanity’s behalf, so that things are made right between people and God. In our show, we see this signposted in the unspoken exchange between Jesus and Barabbas, unpacked in this video.
There are two aspects of Jesus’ character I’ve been considering while preparing to perform the trials and crucifixion scenes – these are ‘father’s heart’ and ‘total accountability.’
My Christian friend Stuart once told me I had a ‘father’s heart,’ which (derived from some verses in John’s gospel) essentially means having a love-filled heart, with room in it for everyone. If this is true (and I’m not sure, because there are some things which I plainly don’t have a love-filled heart for such as iceberg lettuce, and the musical output of Coldplay) this is a real blessing. But I also think it can be something of a curse. The Christian writer Lewis B. Smedes cautions those with a father’s heart about its flip side, the wearying burden of what he describes as ‘total accountability.’
‘Some of us,’ says Smedes, ‘nurture an illusion that we are accountable for all the ills of the world. In our silly pride, we are stupid enough to suppose that God expects us to carry on our little backs a load that only Jesus can bear. (Total accountability) besets sensitive and moral people. … The more sensitive you are to other people’s troubles and your own responsibility, the more vulnerable you are.’
This speaks to me hugely. Maybe it does to you. I would never want to stop listening to people about their problems and trying to help them if I can. As Chris Martin famously sings: ‘I will try to fix you,’ even though it’s simply not possible to fix the great majority of Coldplay songs. The desire to want to help people feels innate and instinctive to me, but as many well-meaning friends, family and workmates have told me so often in the past, I can’t help anyone if I’m a shipwreck, and that means having to put myself first sometimes.
No mere mortal can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. No-one person can help everyone. No-one person can save everyone. But I’ve had the rare honour and privilege to walk a little in the shoes of someone who I’m increasingly beginning to believe can do each of those things.
To be clear, it’s not like Jesus didn’t do self-care. Accounts of him taking time away to be alone, to pray, to rest, to replenish, are there in the gospels. Jesus’ ministry necessarily came with downtime, because being fully human came with the risk of being fully exhausted if he didn’t take opportunity for pause. Even Jesus was at risk of burnout. It’s reasonable to assume, therefore, that there were occasions when (whisper this) he needed to put his own wellbeing first so that he could then best attend to the wellbeing of others.
In attending to the wellbeing of others, though, the difference between Jesus and mere mortals comes squarely in that ‘total accountability’ I speak of.
‘Total accountability,’ it seems, becoming ‘accountable for all the ills of the world’ as Smedes describes it, is a load that only Jesus is equipped to bear. The physical weight of the cross which Jesus carries is symbolic of the infinitely heavier weight he carries in bearing the sins of humanity on his shoulders and dying so that ‘all the world shall find salvation and forgiveness’ (checks own lines from Gethsemane scene – correct!).
We’re not built to bear such a load, and we shouldn’t pretend to be, no matter how well-meaning we are, no matter how genuine and honourable our intentions.
But what does all this mean in performance terms? What’s going through my mind as I’m getting ready to act it all out this week?
Let’s start with a tenuous boxing metaphor (or a wrestling one if you prefer spandex). In the blue corner stand the Sanhedrin (Jerusalem’s religious authorities) and Pontius Pilate (governor of the Roman province of Judaea), there to put Jesus on trial for his supposed blasphemies and to pass sentence. In the red corner stands Jesus – itinerant rabbi, champion of the last, least and lost, speaker of uncomfortable truths, worker of miracles, signs, and wonders.
Who’s your money on here, folks? Who has the power? This doesn’t seem like a fair fight, at least on parchment.
Is Jesus powerful or powerless?
As an ordinary human being trying to act this stuff out, it can feel like both of these at once when I’m in the middle of it. I don’t have very many lines to speak in the trial scene with the Sanhedrin or the scene where Jesus is interrogated by Pilate, but I’m there onstage. It puts me in the somewhat unusual position where I can be an observer of the scenes as much as a participant in them.
It feels like the walls are closing in when I do the trial scenes. It’s such an appalling sequence of events. The things they put that innocent man through. In strictly human terms, Jesus has no power at all here. He’s isolated. He’s fearful. It’s ruthless, relentless, what they’re doing to him. He’s being abused. Brutalised. He’s taking it all, and presumably he doesn’t have to, given that he’s told his disciples that if he willed it, God would unleash actual angels to defend him. Jesus stands down the angels, relieves them of their service, endures the cruelty.
A man with a God within him who we know from Old Testament accounts is able to destroy and destroy utterly. There is such power in Jesus’ restraint when surely rage would seem the most appropriate human response. And Jesus takes the punishment anyway, when it should be Barabbas, when it should be someone else, anyone, everyone, but him. I’m pretty much shaken to my core before the cross even arrives at the crucifixion scene.
And then there’s the crucifixion scene. It’s impossible for me to know what it looks like to an audience because I’m in the midst of it, but it feels so, so very sad every time I do it. I think the scene has a unique beauty and a power all of its own, and it will affect different people in different ways. For me, as a person with a faith, the only words which appear in any way appropriate when it comes to speaking with Jesus about re-enacting this sequence of events are: ‘thank you.’
From an ordinary human being perspective on power, then, to a fully human / fully God perspective on power. This other perspective is explained in Jesus’ few, but extraordinary, words to Pontius Pilate – Pilate, with all of the power he thinks he has.
‘You would have no power over me,’ says Jesus, ‘unless it had been given to you from above. I was born, and I came into this world, to testify to the truth.’
Pilate asks Jesus what truth is, unaware it’s looking right at him. Right at him.
It’s not the first time our show examines the issue of power. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, seems to get Jesus, and the power that is in him, right from the start. In an early scene, Nicodemus says to his fellow Sanhedrin members: ‘How right Jesus is about us. Power and status are difficult things to let go.’
Nicodemus sees a bigger picture that his counterparts cannot see, sees true power as something so much bigger than earthly power, bigger than status, bigger than control and enforced conformity, bigger than privilege, bigger than human-made law itself. Nicodemus senses in Jesus a complete redefining of power, an embodiment of true power, with love for God and love for each other at the heart and mind and soul of all of it – a power that is beautiful, pure, incorrupt and incorruptible, no matter what cowards, tyrants and monsters would do to thwart it. It’s a power, an absolute power, that will endure down the ages.
I’m fond of what Lord Acton famously said to Bishop Creighton about power, even though he has it only half right in my view.
In Jesus’ eyes, power tends to corrupt. But absolute power conquers absolutely.
To finish, my friend Mark suggested to me at the beginning of this project that the experience of playing Jesus would change me. I think he was right. It’s been a series of incremental changes rather than huge epiphanies, but there have been changes nonetheless. Portraying Jesus of Nazareth has been quite the task for Simon of Calverton. I still don’t have answers for any of life’s big questions (I don’t think that was ever a realistic outcome to expect from this) but what I’ve learned, and am still learning as I go, has helped me. I’ve become less frustrated these past weeks and months, less exasperated, more level-headed, more patient. Life is a longer game, and the world’s problems do not have quick fixes.
Ten years since I was baptised now, and maybe this is me accepting that no one person can solve all the world’s problems on their own, or reasonably be expected to try. Maybe this is me being kinder to myself and accepting that anger at the state of the world, and the raging at the machine, shouldn’t be at the heart of a person to the exclusion of everything else.
Anger, unchecked, can become all-consuming. It can diminish our hope, steal our joy, make us part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We can grieve at the almighty mess we’ve made of the world; we can strive to make a change through positive action and activism (because faith without action is dead), but anger achieves little in the end though it may be where any change worth making starts. Even God himself realised this, when he came down to earth in the form of a man called Jesus and found out first-hand what it was like for us – Old Testament God giving way, through Jesus, to another, better, more relational way of dealing with people.
Hey. Maybe this is me accepting my limitations and working out what grace is. Maybe this is me growing up. Shh! Don’t tell my friends.
This blog takes us all the way into the public performances of The Nottingham Passion on Friday 31 March and Saturday 1 April. Tickets for both performances have long since sold out, but you can apply for any returned tickets by sending an email to email@example.com.
Next week, after the performances have finished (and I’ve had a long overdue haircut and shave) my plan is to conclude this series by writing about the resurrection and Great Commission scenes which comprise our show’s finale and offering some final retrospective thoughts about how everything went for Team Nottingham Passion during production week.
Thank you, as ever, for walking with me on this.
copyright (c) carterbloke, 2023
Links – Nottingham Passion
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