Phil Mardlin, together with his wife Harri, heads up the theatre companies LifeBox Theatre and Stagewrite. He is also a member of The Kings Arms Church in Bedford and this year was responsible for putting on the first Passion Play Bedford’s seen in over 3 decades. And here’s how it happened…
Bedford’s last Passion Play was over 30 years ago but that changed this year. Back in June of last year, I was approached by Cally Lawrence, a director friend of mine who had been asked if she would direct a Passion play for the town by a committee of local churches. She readily agreed thinking this would be a great community event for the town. So with an agreement in principle, she came to me to see if I would be happy to write it.
The committee wanted to access funding from the Passion Trust (I didn’t even know they existed, but they do) and one of the requirements for funding is that it needs to be a brand new script. Now, I’ve been a Christian for the best part of 25 years and, in my arrogance, I figured that as I knew the story pretty well, this would be an easy task; I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I finally got down to writing it, it’s amazing how many discrepancies you find in the Gospel accounts. One writer describes the two Marys arriving at the tomb, experiencing an earthquake, seeing the stone being rolled back and the guards becoming like ‘dead men’ as an angel appears. Another account suggests that the two Marys were with Salome and when they arrived at the tomb, the stone was already rolled away and the angel was inside the tomb, whilst another describes more than one angel appearing. You get the picture. Suddenly making a coherent narrative that includes all these perspectives suddenly becomes a little more taxing. But we got there and by the end of the summer we had a working script and rehearsals were under way.
Now to make this work we needed a cast which included a chorus of 50- 60 minimum. By January, however, we had a loyal following of about 6 who were turning up to rehearsals regularly. Therefore we put out some bulletins and pleas for help, letting people know that if they wanted this to happen then we needed them to step up to the plate and to come along to a rehearsal on a Saturday towards the end of January. Well God certainly motivated people at that stage and about 40 turned up. It looked like this was going to happen after all. Now, the only caveat that the committee were given was that Jesus had to be a professional actor. This seemed a perfectly reasonable request since it’s a huge role and undertaking even for a good amateur actor so, with that in mind, Cally began auditioning prospective Jesus-es. Now, ironically, some might say, Judas never turned up for rehearsals so the mantle of betrayer fell to me… which I was secretly quite glad about since I hadn’t initially thought that I would want to perform in it. With time drawing nearer some of the practical difficulties started to become evident such as the need for crosses, stage combat experts, etc. Then we met Alyssa, an incredibly talented woman whose job is choreographing stage combat and specialising in Roman times and crucifixions! This amazingly talented woman built us 3 crosses, choreographed all our fight scenes and then took the part of one of the criminals. We also had donkey-crises, followed by dove-crises that all had to be resolved and time was ticking on.
As the day drew nearer I’d be fibbing somewhat if I told you there weren’t some nervous and anxious conversations with regards to working with a large number of complete non-actors on a performance that’s in the open air and that you can’t really have a proper dress rehearsal for; in this situation you’re never entirely sure what might happen on the day. But the day came, the weather was on our side, and we duly kicked off Bedford’s first Passion play in over 30 years. And what a time we had. We had no idea how many would come out for it – I think if we were honest we hoped we might get a couple of hundred out to see it – but by the time we had arrived at Castle Mound for the crucifixion, the tentative guesses of numbers sat somewhere between 1500 and 2000 people following the procession through the town. It was incredible. To both be involved in it and to see elements of such hard work come together. A motley crew of rag tag church goers had come together, with mostly no acting experience and pulled off the seemingly impossible. I know that both Cally and I couldn’t have been more proud of this group of people who had worked so hard to pull this off. Feedback on the day was so positive with comments around how immersive the experience had been and how the chorus had brought such a degree of reality to it as they spread rumours through the crowd and informed them of what was happening and what Jesus had done. So… if you’re thinking of putting on a Passion Play in your local town next year I’ve got two pieces of advice: 1) Go for it – yes, it’s hard work but it’s so worth it and 2) get started… it was almost a year in the making and time’s ticking on.