I’M PLAYING JESUS in The Nottingham Passion at St Mary’s in the Lace Market this Easter. ‘This Easter’ is imminent, of course, and our company will soon be unveiling its interpretation of the Passion Week story in a wonderful and powerful new theatre production written and directed by Reverend James Pacey.
Followers of this series of blogs will know that I’ve been getting to grips with the various challenges of getting ready to portray Jesus and have been writing some performer’s reflections on these throughout the rehearsal process.
So far, 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).
Welcome then to blog five, in which we consider the agony, betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and the abandonment Jesus is made to feel – not just the physical abandonment by his disciples, who will scatter and flee from him in disarray, but spiritual abandonment by God. Yes. You read that last bit correctly.
As ever, there are rules of engagement for readers who may be wondering (or have just forgotten, admit it!) why I’m writing this series. You can find these rules, perhaps unsurprisingly, under the picture below which says: ‘Rules.’
- 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.
You won’t be surprised to learn (if you’ve been with me to this point) that I’ve been developing a bit of a thing for ‘p’ words. Perspective? Prophecy? Paradox? Preparation? These are all well and good, but how about pipeline for blog five? By this I mean Jesus’ connection to God. I mean Jesus’ driving force – his source of spirit, light, power, inspiration, replenishment, solace, everything. What happens when that’s taken away from Jesus? What happens to the son of God when he feels that God has gone? What must that agony be like? And how do you try to represent it in performance?
I’m getting better with this new diagramming software, by the way.
At Gethsemane, for the first time in Jesus’ human life, he experiences what it’s like to feel total abandonment and isolation. What happens to Jesus in the garden is terrifying, and in enduring it, he becomes more complete a human than he has ever been. In his abandonment Jesus comes to know true fragility, true vulnerability, true heartbreak, true isolation, true fear and (whisper this), true doubt. True, pure, raw, humanity. The gospel writer Luke records that Jesus: ‘being in anguish … prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.’
This chapter in our story is not so much Passion Week as Passion Bleak. Gethsemane, put simply, is darkness. It’s desolation. It’s torment. If the trials and the crucifixion show Jesus in the extremes of physical agony, Gethsemane is Jesus in the extremes of mental and spiritual agony. It’s unrelenting, visceral, excruciating. And it’s the point of no return for Jesus. It’s here in the garden that any ordinary human being, any lesser mortal, might well have capitulated to the sheer, naked terror of all of it and fled for their life.
But Jesus is no ordinary human, and chooses differently.
Once betrayed, once arrested, once in Roman clutches, Jesus knows there will be no turning back. Once the events of Gethsemane play out as predicted, Jesus, alone, incarcerated and left to his fate by his disciples, will find himself on a trajectory that leads to trial, humiliation, torture and death. From Gethsemane, this can go only one way for Jesus.
How remarkable, then, that he does it anyway.
I’ll admit that I’ve had some real worries about doing the ‘let this cup pass from me’ monologue in the Gethsemane scene. More so than the crucifixion scene (where my most acute fear is accidentally braining a member of the audience with my cross as I lug it down the aisle in the church), and more so than the Last Supper scene where I don’t want to make a Horlicks of the world’s first ever communion (for clarity, the Gospels say there was wine in the cup, not Horlicks), the Gethsemane monologue is the one where I feel the most pressure.
I know I should try not to overthink things (which I can’t help, by the way – it’s how I was fearfully and wonderfully made) but I want to do a good and honest job with this speech because it means such a lot to me. I haven’t looked at how other actors have done it, and I won’t. I’m really not fussed about being compared to famous pretend Jesuses and how they did things yonks before me, though for the avoidance of doubt my beard is now considerably longer than Robert Powell’s was when he did Jesus of Nazareth in the 1970s (what a part-timer).
What I am fussed about, I guess, is doing a truthful performance which doesn’t stray into a trite ‘look at me!’ actor cliché. I’m not in this for me. I’m not in this to make a name for myself. I don’t want to act full-time. Stuff that. The simple truth is that I prefer to write, and for others to perform. I’m an introvert that way. Extrovert is fine if it’s a character I’m playing.
But I can promise you that I’ll give it my all. Heart and soul. I’m especially determined that the way I show Jesus won’t conform to the somewhat pedestrian default expectation people often have about church drama productions – that this will be a safe / fluffy / by the numbers staging of a bible story by a group of well-meaning ‘amateur’ performers.
Again, stuff that. I respect the man, and his story, and all it means to me, far too much for that to happen. Safe? Fluffy? Not words you could, or should, apply to Passion Week.
Others in the cast have similar views. They’re not holding back either. For some, this is not so much a dramatic performance as an act of service, or an act of worship. As I think about it now, it’s not the first of these things for me so much as the other two. You’ll know that I have a faith from what I’ve told you here, but you should also and absolutely know that my faith in the fella I’m pretending to be has got me through so much horror and trauma in my life that there’s even a fourth thing for me in this – performance, service, worship … and thanks.
Because if I ever get to meet him, and look him in the eyes, the first thing I’ll do is tell him: ‘Thank you, rabbi.’
Until then, this is the next best thing. So off I go.
A quick aside if you were triggered by me dropping the ‘a’ word earlier. Do you enjoy performing but don’t do it for a living? I’ve got your back. ‘Amateur’ is one of my least favourite words in the English language because it’s used so dismissively in the same universe where ‘professional’ by definition includes people appearing on Celebrity Love Island.
‘Cuddle’ is my favourite word in the English language, for balance.
It’s just that the last time I checked, ‘amateur’ doesn’t mean ‘bad.’ It’s not like this production is the Dibley nativity, though I reckon James could find a spot in our show for Dame Darcey Bussell if her people talked to James’ people.
Quick aside ends!
I know, rabbi. Because sometimes there’s a need for jokes so we can breathe out after the serious bits, right?
This wonderful company of performers (which includes people with a faith, people with none, and people who are unsure either way) are determined to tell this story powerfully, and truthfully, and leave nothing out there on the pitch, with apologies to readers who take the view that religion, politics and Match of the Day shouldn’t mix.
So it’s not about showing off. It’s about showing him.
This is particularly resonant for me with the Gethsemane speech, and I know I was worried about it because I made this video before we’d even rehearsed it once.
We’ve been making videos about preparing to perform, and the Gethsemane video has been the most impactful by far. Other videos in the series haven’t been nearly as insightful (with some of them being downright silly). I don’t mention this enough, but there’s been a generous, gentle and joyful spirit throughout the whole rehearsal process, with many awesome moments of light relief and humour. It’s been important to me to try to capture a sense of the joy of it all as I’ve been going along. There’s even one video in this collection where I do Jesus lines in eight comedy voices in three minutes. Really. You’re welcome.
But when I revisit the Gethsemane video, I realise just how deeply affected I’ve become by this entire project and the role I’ve been asked to play. I’ve become somewhat carried away with it. ‘Swept up’ maybe.
James was interviewed by Nottingham’s Left Lion magazine last month about his creative approach to the project. I was struck by one of his observations about drama and liturgy being about: ‘real, honest, truthful storytelling.’ I realise that through my experience on this I’ve become something of a living proof of concept.
‘The best, most affecting worship is like theatre when we are completely swept up in the narrative being presented,’ says James. ‘When we truly believe what we’re doing, something powerful and inexplicable takes over.’
I can attest, I think, to the ‘something powerful’ taking over, but I can’t explain the ‘inexplicable’ part because if I could, it wouldn’t be ‘inexplicable’ because I’d explained it, which is the opposite of ‘inexplicable,’ and I’m overthinking it all again, so I’ll have to get back to you on Wednesday.
I wholeheartedly relate to the ‘truly believe what we’re doing’ part. I don’t necessarily mean ‘believe’ in a faith context, more in the context of ‘immersion’ where you’re just so into what you’re doing that commitment, integrity and conviction come as standard. When you can find something in the material you’re working with which connects powerfully with you, and you’re able to draw something from within yourself which helps you to feel, speak and give life and depth to that material, then you’re at least halfway to truthful storytelling.
As I said way back in blog two, in preparing to portray Jesus as authentically as possible, I clearly have no comparable lived experience of being fully God and fully human to draw upon. But to tell a story well I think that a performer needs to find some points of engagement and connection with the character whose story they’re telling, otherwise the character’s words are just words on a page, devoid of any true meaning.
You need to try to feel it, so you can believe it, so you can meaningfully show it.
And here I am, sounding just like the theatre geek mafia I also spoke about in blog two (did you get round to googling the words ‘Uta Hagen method’ by the way?).
Anyhow, here’s our Becky below (as Simon Peter) ‘meaningfully showing it’ at rehearsal with a flipping big sword. Spoiler! Our Gethsemane scene features a brilliant fight sequence choreographed by amazing professional fight director Kaitlin Howard.
Here’s where I was going with this.
You don’t need to have been Jesus, kneeling in a garden, crying his eyes out, pouring his heart out, to know about abandonment, and to show to an audience what abandonment looks like. I’ve known how it’s been to feel abandoned in my life. How about you? I’ve known how it’s felt to not want to have to endure something, to not want to go through an ordeal. How about you? I’ve known how it’s felt to want something stark, painful and terrifying taken away from me. I’ve known how it’s felt to not understand the reason why I must do the something stark, painful and terrifying. How about you?
You don’t have to believe that Jesus was the son of God to believe that Jesus knew about human suffering. It’s beyond doubt that Jesus experienced human suffering himself. He’s been where we’ve been, felt what we’ve felt. So much more besides.
Gethsemane is human suffering writ large, and the abandonment that Jesus feels is the worst abandonment of all. To feel, in his agony, that God is absent. To feel utterly alone in the universe. I think that many of us will have felt this way in our darkest times. Such a desperate speech.
It seems to me that the themes touched on in the Gethsemane scene (and indeed across the whole play) are so universal as to be relatable to everyone, wherever we stand spiritually.
As James says in the Left Lion article: ‘whether people believe or not, the story touches on a profoundly emotional, spiritual level … the themes of sacrifice, love, betrayal, and desperation – it has it all.’
On the subject of ‘betrayal,’ that’s the mighty Ade Andrews (aka. Ezekial Bone, Nottingham’s own Robin Hood) as Judas Iscariot giving me a traitorous peck on the cheek in the picture below. It’s to Gethsemane, of course, that Judas Iscariot leads Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus, identifying his master by kissing him on the cheek.
The betrayal of Jesus is a beautifully directed sequence, and Ade does what he does wonderfully in it. At this point I’m under instructions not to give too much away about how the action plays out. Don’t worry, theology buffs! Judas still betrays Jesus! We haven’t messed with the gospel!
But you might want to rain check those boos and hisses in the light of what you see. Let’s just say what you see might defy expectations.
You didn’t want something safe and fluffy, did you?
Thanks, as ever, for coming along. Next up for Jesus? The trials and the crucifixion.
copyright (c) carterbloke, 2023
Links – Nottingham Passion
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