‘GOT a Jesus”. My phone chimes late one night with this three-word text. Three-and-a-half weeks before the performance of my Passion play in Princes Street Gardens, the actor due to play Christ had to withdraw from the production. Now, with a stroke of timing approaching the miraculous, director Suzanne Lofthus has found another actor: Jesus’ boots were filled.
On The Edge is a Passion play with a difference. It’s the story of Easter – the last days of Jesus Christ – but the storytellers are the people on the fringes, the walk-on parts who don’t normally get a voice. In this version, Jesus is a presence, but he doesn’t have many lines: perhaps that’s just as well, he doesn’t have long to learn them.
The production of an Easter Play in Princes Street Gardens on Holy Saturday has become an Edinburgh tradition. This is its tenth year. The plays have taken a variety of shapes and forms, from traditional, fully costumed Passion plays to inventive promenade productions like this one. Last year, Rob Drummond’s Edinburgh Passion – a hard-hitting retelling of the story set in near-contemporary Scotland – played to record crowds on a gloriously sunny Saturday. When Suzanne and the Easter Play Trust approached me to write this year’s play, they were looking for another fresh perspective.
I’d been interested for some time in the people on the edges of the Passion story. They get, at most, a verse each in the Gospels, yet they have a role to play: Simon of Cyrene, hauled out of the crowd and made to carry the cross when Jesus (exhausted and beaten) collapses under its weight; Claudia Procula, the wife of Pontius Pilate, who sends her husband a desperate note while he sits in judgment on Christ: “Have nothing to do with this righteous man, I have suffered much in a dream because of him”; the Roman centurion supervising the crucifixion, who looks on this extraordinary death and says: “Surely this was a righteous man.”
We get only tantalising glimpses of these people, yet they are what a writer might call “great material”. Behind each one, there is scope to imagine a life, a story. And each of them has a take on this man, Jesus Christ, the remarkable protagonist whose message is so radical he is eventually put to death for it. As one of the characters in the play says: “You can see a lot from the edges.”
Whether or not one has religious faith, the story of Jesus is one of the great stories of world. It bears telling and retelling, in old and new ways. Am I taking liberties with it? Perhaps, but no more than Mel Gibson took in The Passion Of The Christ, and considerably fewer than Steven Berkoff or Andrew Lloyd Webber took with their versions. The story is robust enough to accommodate us all.
I began to take those walk-on parts and build characters around them. My Simon of Cyrene is an angry man, radicalised by the Roman occupation of Judea, on his way to commit an act of politically motivated violence. Claudia Procula, the governor’s wife, has never questioned the values of her privileged Roman upbringing, but here on the hostile fringes of the empire she has to begin to think for herself. My centurion is part of a highly trained peace-keeping force who find themselves unwelcome and ill-equipped in a contentious Middle Eastern country. The modern resonances haven’t been hard to find.
The framework to contain these different voices arrived one day when Suzanne and I were having a snatched coffee together. “Write plenty of parts for women,” she said, “community productions always have more women volunteers than men.” That got me thinking about the women in the story. They get a couple of sentences in Matthew’s Gospel: “Many women were there [at the crucifixion], watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs.” Well, of course there were women. Jesus and his entourage needed people to cook, do the laundry, take care of the practicalities. The times in which they lived didn’t see fit to record women’s stories, but these were thinking, breathing human beings.
There are hints, between the lines, at the profound role they may have played in the story. At the crucifixion, when the majority of the disciples had fled for fear of their lives, the women stayed and witnessed Jesus’ death. Two days later, when the men were holed up in a house in Jerusalem with the door locked “for fear of the Jews”, the women went to visit the tomb. In John’s Gospel, the first appearance of the risen Christ is to a woman – Mary Magdalene – although, at the time, the testimony of a woman (even more, a former prostitute) would not have been recognised by law.
It was one thing for me to write in the voices of these women, and another to see them brought to life by a vigorous group of Edinburgh veterans of long-standing amateur groups, such as Edinburgh People’s Theatre, and many previous Easter Plays. They are mothers and grandmothers, nurses and teachers, women whose groundedness shines through, and who step into the roles as naturally as if they were made for them.
At one rehearsal, I was approached by Marion McKillop, who plays Salome (immensely proud of her two sons, who are among the Twelve Apostles). I give her a line in the play where she talks about her “two big strapping boys”. “The thing is,” Marion said, “I’ve got two sons, and I call them ‘my two big strapping laddies’. Can I call them ‘laddies’ in the play or does it have to be ‘boys’?” Answer: of course. Life meets art.
Attending rehearsals for On The Edge has inspired in me a world of respect for the community cast who are bringing my play to life, the insurance executives and coffee shop baristas, the drama students and retirees who rush to rehearsals after work on Thursday nights from Kirkcaldy or Bathgate or Dalkeith, and spend their free time learning the copious lines I’ve written. I have no end of admiration for Suzanne, who – with great determination and dedication – drives the whole engine, bringing this complicated promenade production from page to stage in a rehearsal period far shorter than a professional theatre company would have. And behind that, there is all the work done by the Easter Play Trust and Steering Group.
And then there’s the weather. Scotland’s weather respects no man. As a theatre critic, I’ve watched productions in pouring rain by some of the country’s finest companies. Passion plays in Edinburgh have been performed (as last year) in glorious sunshine and in weather so cold the cast are wearing thermal long johns under their biblical robes. Will it be all right on the day? Perhaps we need to have a word with the Man Upstairs about that.
• On The Edge, West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, Saturday, 2pm. Admission is free. www.easterplay.org