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Guest Blog: Directing The Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square

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Ashley Herman began his career in the theatre at the age of 17 and has since produced or co-produced over 35 West End productions.

Together with a group of devout Christians he has staged The Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square each Easter since 2010. The production is written and produced by Peter Hutley with Jesus portrayed by James Burke-Dunsmore.

The event, which will be staged with a cast of 150 actors as well as donkeys, horses and an artificial tomb on Good Friday (6 April 2012), is a scaled down version of the six-hour Life of Christ which has been performed annually for the past 20 years at the Wintershall estate in Surrey.

In addition to staging The Passion of Jesus and Life of Christ as director of the Wintershall Mystery Plays, Herman is Chairman of Guilford School of Acting and Deputy Chairman of Encore Tickets which he jointly founded in 2000.

I spent most of this morning checking out donkeys, horses and baskets of pigeons to ensure that they are ready to rehearse tomorrow for The Passion of Jesus which we will be presenting on Good Friday in Trafalgar Square.

In the summer, for our production of The Life of Christ, the menagerie will be increased to include hens, additional horses, a flock of sheep and thirty trout.

Coaxing a performance from a flock of sheep (not noted for their triple threat capabilities) is something I have learned over the twenty years that we have been performing the plays.

There’s something incredibly special about putting on a play in Trafalgar Square. First, there’s the location – right in the heart of town with the historic sites of Westminster and Buckingham Palace just a stone’s throw away.

Then there’s the history of the place itself – a symbolic spot for peace celebrations, political protests, sports triumphs and (in our new digital age) opera screenings.

What all these events share, in a word, is community. So to my mind there is no better place to bring people from all across the city – and those visiting from further afield – to listen and watch the Easter story brought to life by a cast of over 100 actors.

I am the director of the Wintershall Mystery Plays. Wintershall is a beautiful organic farm and estate in the Surrey Hills. Our actors are all volunteers, mainly from the surrounding villages and over the years our audiences have grown to tens of thousands of people.

Wintershall is a beautiful spot to perform open air productions. You’re surrounded by sprawling, lush green woodland – the type of calming, pastoral place you imagine when Vaughan Williams (who lived nearby) is playing on Classic FM.

As fans of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre will know, there’s something quietly moving about being outdoors watching a drama unfold. Our production of The Life of Christ encompasses all the Mysteries in one day.

The Passion of Jesus in 2011
The play starts in the morning and finishes in the late afternoon. And it’s a magical experience for the audience to follow the action around such breathtaking countryside.

For the past two years we have performed the Passion sequence of the Mysteries in Trafalgar Square. What the Square may lack in tranquillity it more than makes up for in bustle, spectacle and atmosphere.

It’s a place where people pass through, meet and reflect – real life stories play out there every day. And The Passion of Jesus is all about people. In our version, we quite literally place Jesus’ story in the heart of London’s crowds.

You hear a lot these days about immersive theatre; it’s a bit of a buzzword. But outdoor performance is as immersive as it gets – and the tradition stretches back thousands of years. In Hellenic Greece, attending public theatre was considered a civic duty not only for the free citizens but also criminals, who would be released from their cells to observe performances (before promptly being banged up again, of course).

In the culture of that time, there was an absolute belief that theatre could instruct us on how to live. Socrates described philosophy as “learning how to die," but, to shamelessly paraphrase the old man, I’d say that theatre is about learning how to live. We achieve that by sharing stories.

And there is no greater story than the Passion.

A play such as the Passion, performed before of a vast crowd, (last year the two performances played to over 20,000 people) is astonishingly powerful, not matter what the weather throws at us.

Hopefully the animals will be reasonably well behaved (not to mention the actors). At 4.00am on Good Friday we will be installing the set, the vast screen and cameras and intricate sound system.

Our aim being to present a play that is as exciting, raw and fresh as it is moving, relevant and steeped in centuries of tradition.

I do hope you will be able to join us and play your part in this unique event. And now I must get back to the donkey.

The Passion of Jesus is a 90-minute performance which will be presented at 12pm and 3.15pm on Good Friday (6 April 2012) in Trafalgar Square. Admission is free.


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