The Passion of Jesus was presented out in the open, in Trafalgar Square, one of the most recognisable landmarks in any capital city in the world. In the 1820s King George IV engaged the architect John Nash to redevelop the area formerly known as the King's Mews. Nash also designed, among other famous buildings, Buckingham Palace (although the facade is not his work). The resulting square was named in honour of Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The present architecture is the work of Sir Charles Barry, who is best known for the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament after the original buildings were destroyed by fire in 1834. At the centre of the square is Nelson's Column. Trafalgar Square has long been the site of political demonstrations and community gatherings.
The Passion of Jesus is one of several biblical-themed plays that have been performed annually since 1989 at the Wintershall Estate, a private estate in Surrey that has been the home of businessman Peter Hutley and his wife Ann for the past 50 years. In recent years the plays have also been performed outside of Wintershall, and the Passion of Jesus was first performed in Trafalgar Square in 2010. The company of amateur but keen actors, musicians and animals have also performed as far afield as the United States and Australia.
The Post Office uses Charing Cross, just a stone's throw away, to mark the centre of London. The embassies of South Africa, Canada and Malaysia, as well as the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and St Martin's in the Field Church, are all close by. Trafalgar Square is also famous for its fountains (which were turned off for the play) and for its many pigeons, some of whom flew disturbingly close to the heads of the audience at times. One can walk to the seat of government by wandering down Whitehall, past Downing Street and on toward the Palace of Westminster, or down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace. One can easily walk to the London theatres from here, to several of the royal parks, or to the main shopping thoroughfares of London. It is, however, a nightmare for traffic, and driving around the area is ill-advised.
The opening introduction was done by Peter Hutley. The play was performed by a large cast, but lacking a programme (see below) I am at a disadvantage to name them. The closing address was given by His Eminence Vincent Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster.
What was the name of the service?The Passion of Jesus.
How full was the building?
Trafalgar Square was packed. With crowds that size it's difficult to count, but I would estimate somewhere in the region of 10,000 people were there.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not at all; there were far too many people for that. The stewards were trying to keep sections clear so that Jesus' donkey and Pilate's horse could process freely through the crowd.
Was your pew comfortable?
There were no pews. In spite of arriving half an hour early, I found that all the steps had already been taken, so I sat on the floor, along with most people. It was one of the most uncomfortable sitting experiences I have ever had! I experienced, at various times, a child sitting on my foot, someone's knee in my back, and the complete loss of feeling in my right leg. I had no room to stretch out.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Busy. There was a family next to me eating a meal from a well-known fast food chain, and various people were trying to locate their friends and families on the opposite sides of the Square whilst talking to them on their mobile phones.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good afternoon. I make this announcement on behalf of the producers, the directors, all those backstage, and the cast of the Passion of Jesus in London."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Stewards were handing out free programmes, but when I indicated that I would like one, the steward simply looked through me and passed one to the person behind me. I wasn't able to get hold of one to read.
What musical instruments were played?
There was no live music, but some canned music was piped through the PA system at various times.
Did anything distract you?
The uncomfortable seating alluded to earlier was a great distraction. The Last Supper was also interrupted by a helicopter flying overhead. And then there were the pigeons!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Intensely dramatic. It began with Peter Hutley explaining that the intention of the players was to share their faith with the crowd. He said that Jesus, who through miraculous signs had proved that he was God, had been crucified by an occupying power for political reasons. The actors then took over, speaking about Jesus' effect on the common people vs the priestly hierarchy. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was re-enacted, including the performing of miracles and confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees. The actors moved freely through the crowd as they portrayed the events of the week, including the Last Supper, Jesus' prayer at Gethsemane, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, Pilate's questioning and condemnation of Jesus, the carrying of the Cross, the crucifixion, the burial, the discovery of the empty tomb by the Marys, the appearances of the resurrected Jesus, and finally the Ascension (represented by Jesus walking quickly out of the Square). The hauling up to their crosses of Jesus and the two thieves was especially dramatic as a recording of "O Sacred Head" by an a cappella choir was played.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
The play itself lasted for an hour and a half, after which Cardinal Nichols spoke for about three minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
Mixed. Peter Hutley's opening remarks were very clear, fairly uncontroversial, and they put the play in its context. The play itself was excellently done. But I was sorely disappointed in the Cardinal's remarks, which amounted to little more than a reminder that we had just witnessed The Greatest Story Ever Told. The crowd mostly ignored him as they stood up and gathered their things in preparation for leaving.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The fact that most of the action took place among the audience, and the inclusion of the audience in various scenes such as the baying crowd at the acquittal of Barabbas, were nice touches to remind us that this is a play that is not remote and to be observed, but one in which we all are active partakers. Finally: "Out of the mouths of babes..." as they say; I overheard a little boy ask his father a question that I'll remember long after seven days' time (see below).
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I would be tempted to reiterate the point about the uncomfortable seating, but I think that given the context of a crucifixion this would seem churlish. Rather, the point that really got under my skin was the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. There was a slightly prolonged fight scene that seemed more fitting for a comedic Western brawl than for a passion play; maybe artistic license was taken a little too far here.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Hanging around and looking lost might attract some attention in churches. In Trafalgar Square, this is standard fare for most tourists. Some of the cast stuck around to chat to the audience, many of whom wanted their photos taken with the actors.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There weren't any drinks or snacks being offered. I wandered off to a nearby food outlet and picked up a tasty little box lunch.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It's not really applicable, but I would definitely be tempted to return next year.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I wouldn't use the word "glad" it was a visual reminder of the basis for why I am a Christian, a visceral expression of that which already has my assent. I might have been gladder if as much emphasis had been placed on the Resurrection as on the Crucifixion; it seemed slightly lopsided in its emphasis.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The little boy who was sat next to me and asked his dad, "Did that really happen?"