The Cowley Road Passion Play

Damian Feeney, author and director of the Passion Play performed on Oxford’s Cowley Road this year, reflects on the event and its impact on its audience

Good Friday 2012 brought The Cowley Road Passion Play. This was a co-operative venture with local churches – the cast drawn from four local church communities, as well as students from St Stephen’s House. I was privileged to be asked to write and direct the play: ordinand Alice Whalley was the producer: Shei Crowther assisted with direction, in addition to undertaking the role of Chorus. Ordinand Mischa Richards took the role of the Christ. The following timeline acts as a reflection on the event.

Pause for thought

0600 A peep through the curtains indicates that our worst fears will not be realized. The day has dawned bright and clear, with a little frost suggesting that it might be cold for sandaled feet this morning.

0630 Downstairs, to complete a few jobs on props – we need a couple of stools, a hammer, a string to suspend the titulus from the cross. There is the titulus, on canvas, handwritten in Hebrew, Latin, Greek…the first moment where I have pause for thought. How many human beings have their death not only remembered, but re-enacted, in quite so many ways? Today Mischa Richards and a host of others all over the globe will attempt to convey the person of Jesus Christ, and him crucified – an impossible task, made accessible by grace.

Interview and rehearsals

0730 Across to my study, for an appointment with local radio. Alice Whalley joins me in an otherwise silent college, ready for the phone to ring. Her mobile goes off at 0745, followed by the landline on which we will conduct the interview. At the other end of the line will be Phil Gayle, and an awful lot of Oxfordshire based listeners. The questions begin more or less predictably – what a passion play is, why we tell the story, who we are, who we represent. Then it’s over to Alice, who gets a curve ball because she is a scientist. Where is heaven? What has your journey been like? She deals with it all in a very practiced way. Then, it’s down to fevered conversations about what still needs to be done, as we head out to a re-scheduled rehearsal at 0800, at East Oxford School. We received the news yesterday that Tesco – one of the iconic locations en route – was not able to accommodate the scene with Pontius Pilate. A hasty rethink, with actors, is necessary, so we head off to the forecourt of the school to re-block and run the scene. This takes about twenty minutes, and then it is time to head back to college, to load up the remaining props into the car, finally inserting Fiona Feeney (and her drum, of which more later) into the car. I receive temporary use of a prized possession – one of three walkie-talkies, borrowed from a hill farm in Wales, which means that Alice, Lillian and I can talk to each other wherever we happen to be in Oxford.

Air of excitement

0915 As Alice goes off to brief the stewards, I drive down to Manzil Way for the first ‘prop-drop’ – where a succession of people will guard the props to ensure they stay where they should. Then to East Oxford School, where Mary Magdalene (Ellie Feeney) doubles as prop guard.

0930 I arrive at the Methodist church, already laid out for the first scene. There is a tremendous air of suppressed excitement. I wander around, saying what I hope are encouraging things, given occasional notes to individuals, listening to Rebecca Feeney teaching the final song to everyone. Bruce Gillingham arrives, and asks to just ‘be with the actors’ for the final minutes of preparation. Fiona arrives. The intention is that she will beat the drum between scenes as we move from place to place, an idea taken from the opening of the last movement of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, itself inspired by the composer witnessing the funeral cortege of a New York fireman. The funereal undertone, and the capacity of the drum to keep the crowd together, are both significant.

The drama begins

1000 The entire cast, and production crew gather upstairs in the Methodist Church for a period of prayer, readings and gentle worship. All in all, it has a calming effect, and as we leave we do so exchanging the peace with one another.

After one last briefing we assemble for the play to begin. I look outside, and see that already there are about 100 people waiting for the drama to begin. I give the signal for the drum to begin – and we are away.

1030 Chorus (Shei Crowther) begins to announce the introduction, and Jesus and the Apostles appear. I walk round, looking at it from every angle, as the scene unfolds. This is sheer nerves, and force of habit. But it is going well, save for the brewery delivery which is taking place across the road. I remind myself that it goes with outdoor street performances, and try to block it out. While the action moves to Moberly Close for two scenes, I must go to East Oxford School, to don the costume of Pilate, and prepare for the procession to come my way. As I am changing, a crackle on the radio. Scene 3 has been moved to accommodate the sheer volume of crowds. I am stunned.

Enormous crowd

1055 Annas and Caiaphas arrive on scene, complete with green matching dalmatic and tunicle of rich hue. It has been great fun rehearsing with these two, and they are clearly enjoying themselves. We prepare for our scene, which is watched, at close quarters, by an enormous crowd. The new space works well, and the crowd reacts to every word and gesture. Looking at them during the scourging, I marvel at the capacity of this story to engage people – to touch them and move them. I finally condemn Jesus. I walk away, feeling slightly sick. In the background I can hear the drum starting up, and the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling away. I quickly remove my costume and return to the role of agitated director. We move quickly up Cowley Road. I am anxious because the whole thing will stand or fall by the visual impact of the next scene.

Awesome and frightening

A classic image – that of Jesus, carrying his cross, bowed down under its weight. The soldiers are brutal in their words, their gestures. Photographs catch all of them with hard faces, professional inflicters of pain, simply doing their job. Finally, the execution party makes its way up the ramp which runs across the front of the Health Centre, looking a little like the representation of the temple forecourt in Zeffirelli’s classic Jesus of Nazareth. Then, the slow, methodical and murderous construction of the crucifixion scene – and finally Jesus is raised up, to draw us all to himself. Our greatest hopes are realized – that this would be realistic, powerful and compelling. It is all those things, and I find myself stood next to Adam Romanis, the parish priest and part of the creative team for the play, who is practically speechless with the power of it all. Jesus’ death is awesome, frightening. His coming down from the cross is tortured. Across this a solo voice (Rebecca Feeney) completes the scene with Samuel Crossman’s mighty hymn My Song is Love Unknown. Five weeks ago Rebecca broke her back in two places as the result of a bad fall. Here she was, having relinquished the part of Mary Magdalene to her sister Eleanor, singing in front of 300 people, as well as her crucified Lord.

Profound effect

The procession makes its way down the ramp again, and Joseph of Arimathea (Brother Lucian opm) carries the body of Jesus, along with the three soldiers, to the resting place which has been created under the tower of the Parish Church. The crowd follows, and only now do we realize how big this has become. The drum fulfils its role, marking what is now a cortege. Stewards instinctively regulate the flow of crowd and traffic, and we witness Jesus being taken into his tomb, and the doors slamming shut. The crowd is so great that Mary Magdalene has to fight her way through to get to the tomb. Jesus reappears, almost shining in the sunlight, freshly robed, and the final words are spoken. A sung paraphrase of Psalm 117 completes the scene. Applause breaks out, and is prolonged. The effect on the bystanders has been profound, and many have been in tears – including those who have rehearsed this journey in their hearts many times before. One colleague spoke of the fact that all the way along the route, people had stopped and watched; shopkeepers of all creeds and none had paused as the scenes unfolded around them; the workers on the building site next to the Health Centre had stopped work, and one or two had taken photographs.

The effect on the crowd was profound. The effect on those of us privileged to produce this has been life-changing, as new insights to faith are offered both by the story and by the context in which it unfolded – Cowley Road, Oxford, 2012. For me this rich, bustling, edgy, 24/7 place is now holy ground, and I will not be able to walk it without thinking of the day when we portrayed the love and grief of the Godhead to the people for whom Jesus died. It is accomplished. ND

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