The Edinburgh Passion’s modern biblical tale

Actor Duncan Rennie during rehearsals for the forthcoming The Edinburgh Passion. Picture: Jane Barlow
Actor Duncan Rennie during rehearsals for the forthcoming The Edinburgh Passion. Picture: Jane Barlow
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A MODERN slant on the crucifixion story, based in Scotland, takes place on the eve of a referendum vote

For my sins, I am playing Herod, but it’s Minister Herod, the man who leads the No campaign.” John Henderson chuckles at the prospect. An elder in the Church of Scotland in Craiglockart, Henderson doesn’t much sound like the kind of man for whom being power-hungry and ruthless comes easy. “The challenge is that he’s very smooth,” he says sheepishly. “I am, I hope, far from very smooth.”

Quite. Henderson’s dramatic transformation is for his role in the Edinburgh Passion, a large-scale Passion play being staged in Princes Street Gardens on Easter Saturday. Written by award-winning playwright Rob Drummond, who wrote 2011’s Glasgow Passion which was performed in George Square, this is a contemporary version of the biblical story. The action has been shifted to Scotland on the eve of a referendum (note: a referendum, not the referendum), Jesus is a radical who wants to shake up the status quo by encouraging people to imagine a different way of living, which makes him a target for Minister Herod and his ruthless spin doctor, McKayfus.

Passion plays have been around since medieval times, but in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in staging these productions in new and challenging ways. Hollywood actor Michael Sheen created his epic version in Port Talbot, directing as well as playing Christ. There was the Manchester Passion, screened live on the BBC, and the Liverpool Nativity.

For director Suzanne Lofthus, who has been involved with Passion plays for nearly 15 years, and who commissioned Drummond for this latest production, there has never been a better time to imagine this story in different ways. “I had been doing a very traditional version in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park for a number of years and I really just felt that it wasn’t working,” she says. “When you do the traditional people can fail to see the relevance, people think it’s just another Jesus story. People have become frightened of what they perceive as religion and fanaticism, they’ve backed off from it.”

As far as Lofthus is concerned we may no longer live in an illiterate society, which is why in medieval times the church used Passion plays to communicate its story, but we are living in a “biblically illiterate society”. That’s why performances such as these continue to be a creative way to tell the story, making it free and accessible to everyone. “The play doesn’t push a message,” she says, “it just tells the story.”

For Drummond, whose script draws out the radical and political aspects of the story, as well as adding some lovely contemporary details – the Last Supper is shepherd’s pie and a pint in a pub – the challenge was to create a piece of theatre which both respected the Christian community while also managing to be “a bit edgy”. As it turns out, having a dad who is a minister in the Church of Scotland helped inform that balancing act.

“I’m not a practicing Christian but I’ve got a reference point and an understanding of what they’re trying to do. I was constantly pushing what they would and wouldn’t accept. I think what we got in the end is something that, although it wouldn’t shock anyone outside that community, it did push buttons within it. I was trying to find a universal truth regardless of whether you are a Christian or not.”

The Edinburgh Passion is a community production, and the majority of cast and crew are volunteers. John Henderson and his wife, Norma, who plays a judge in the production, originally got involved in 2003 after seeing an advert through the Scottish Community of Dramatic Arts rather than a church. Elaine Palmer, the woman who has the challenge of playing McKayfus, got involved in the same way. A special needs teacher from Kirkcaldy, like Henderson, she’s being tested by her transformation into the scheming spin doctor. “I’ve always played a lady of the night before,” Palmer says, giggling. “McKayfus is very different to me. I’m a teacher, I’m quite bubbly and smiley. That’s the complete opposite to her. She is sinister, a real manipulator.”

For Lofthus, Passion plays are by the people, for the people, which means they get to the heart of the community wherever that community is. “We get people from all backgrounds involved, children and young people, people who’ve retired, people who have never acted before, people who’ve been involved with am dram all their lives. We form a new community and everyone works together for one purpose, to tell this story whether they believe in it or not.”

As well as her community productions, Lofthus has been involved in producing Passion plays in prisons both here and overseas. Her work in Louisiana State Penitentiary, where she created a version of the play with prisoners serving life sentences, was groundbreaking. She is also involved in a project currently under way in Greenock Prison. For her, there is much to be gleaned from encouraging prisoners to bring their own life stories into the play. “We find amazing parallels because what’s often forgotten is that the characters from the Bible are just ordinary men and women,” she says. “The prisoners think the Jesus story has no relevance to them but then you say that Mary was believed to be about 14 when she was pregnant with Jesus, lots of the women there had their children when they were very young. Then you tell them that Jesus was imprisoned and sentenced the next day and of course they know what that feels like. In America where they have death row, the people we’re working with understand exactly what it is to be sentenced to death. They bring that experience into the play.”

The version of the play that is being created in Greenock Prison is a series of monologues rather than a traditional script. Some have been written for the prisoners to perform, others they’ve written themselves.

“When you explain to the girl playing Mary Magdalen in Greenock that Mary was a girl who had a hard life and was abused by men for much of it and you ask her if she knows what that’s like, of course she does, because in part, that’s why she’s where she is.”

In the US, Lofthus says, the prisoners say that they want the public to see that they are not monsters, in Greenock it’s that they’re “not the scum of the earth”. In this way, performing the Passion play becomes about humanity – being seen for who they are by an audience. For the community cast that will be performing in Princes Street Gardens, John and Norma Henderson and Elaine Palmer amongst them, performing is a way of telling a story that, as Christians, means much to them. It’s a way of sharing their faith. But in Drummond’s interpretation, something else has happened too.

“This version has really allowed us to think about what it would be like if Jesus was here today,” says Norma. “Would I believe what he had to say?”

• The Edinburgh Passion is on Saturday 19 April at 2pm in Princes Street Gardens. The performance is free and open to all.