Suspending Jesus but not disbelief
I’m sorry, I’ll write that again. Of course it can be bad, but let’s list some of the play’s admirable features before I get my knife out. The set is impressive, a good fifty yards across with an array of spaces representing the Temple, Herod’s palace, the Upper Room, Gethsemane, Calvary and many more playing areas. The actors mime to pre-recorded dialogue: I was prepared for this feature, which some commentators have complained about, but the sound always seemed to be coming from the right general area and after a few moments it ceased to distract. Sound and lighting are as excellent, as one would expect. The cast includes camels, horses, donkeys, a flock of sheep and a quantity of doves, released when Jesus cleanses the Temple.
So what was wrong with it? One or two secondary quibbles and a huge primary one. I didn’t much care for the entire action proceeding against a musical background: not that the music wasn’t pretty good, but it never relented and at times our relative closeness to Hollywood, as against Jerusalem, felt all too appropriate. Everything Jesus said had a heart-rending catch in the voice, fit to wring tears from a breezeblock. The script was patchy, taking huge liberties with the order of events in the Gospels, sometimes to quite good effect: thus the content of Jesus’ teaching was conveyed at some depth, whereas at other times I felt the strain. The consequence of having Jesus jump from Synoptic to Johannine discourse in the same breath was to make him sound more like the theology about him than a credible human being. The disciples came across as uninformly thick and one-dimensional, their dumb questions serving as no more than feeds for Jesus’ wisdom; Judas was greedy, stupid and implausible. The writer had much more fun developing the Pharisees as characters, developing Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea into heroic rebels in the ranks of otherwise scheming, unprincipled blackguards. The trial scenes were perhaps the most effective.
Inevitably, the crucifixion scene used all four Gospels for the last words, followed by an earthquake (although not, disappointingly, the tearing of the Temple veil). I was hoping to see the spirits rise from their graves and walk around but in a script that otherwise worked in every detail from Matthew this was unaccountably overlooked. I might send an e-mail to the producers and ask why.
Then my real problems began. Jesus was duly buried in his tomb and the stone rolled in front of it. Then the resurrection happened. Light gleamed behind the stone, dry ice puffed out into the night sky and caught the spotlights. Jesus announced Satan’s defeat as he had conquered death, although he was still waiting to get out. To his aid came a very Victorian-looking angel with slightly wobbly wings, his supernatural brilliance causing the soldiers to pass out, and he then rolled back the stone. Jesus appeared in a new costume, took a bow, and got a huge round of applause. Which was nice.
In cheerful disregard of the two resurrection appearance traditions, in Galilee and Jerusalem, our dramatist conflated most of them into a single narrative close to the empty tomb, and although we were spared Luke’s “here, I’ll show you this is physical, give me a piece of fish” what we had instead was worse: hugs all round, hi guys, I’m back from the dead, you see it wasn’t that bad, was it?
The final coup de theatre involved Jesus ascending. Literally of course, this is the Bible belt, suspended on a hoist which I’d seen earlier: I knew this was coming. As he vanished into the trees and the lights cut out, so the show ended.
I can only say this for now: if I didn’t already believe in the resurrection, this play would if anything have tended to make me believe in it less, not more. If I did believe in the ascension (recorded only by Luke, whose chronology has given him some problems that the other Gospel writers don’t have because to them resurrection and ascension were a single event - which I believe to be the Church’s original teaching) I certainly wouldn’t believe in it now. Portraying miraculous events in this literalistic, in-your-face way leads to them becoming not more credible but far less so.
I hope the Passion Play may have brought some to faith. I fear it may have driven some further away.