A Passion for Poole
Michael Handy looks at how Parkstone's version of Oberammergau came into being
Published in April ’14
The Poole Passion (TPP) came out of a conversation between Sharon Muiruri and Father Nigel LLoyd, then Rector of St Peter’s Church, Parkstone in 2008. Sharon had seen an exhibition called ‘The Passions’ by Bill Viola (who had used film images and actors ‘moving’ slowly in tableaux) and Sharon thought a series of tableaux – that would move in slow motion for the stations of the cross – would be an interesting idea. Fr. Nigel was very enthusiastic and introduced Sharon to Rev. Jonathan Martin, then minister of Parkstone United Reformed Church (PURC), who said Poole had wanted a passion play for some time, but was waiting for someone to do it.
After a lot of negotiation it was decided that in 2009 there would be a pilot production. As with many creative efforts, a smallish idea soon became a much bigger one: creating a full-length play, split between two main sites with the first half to be performed in PURC, followed by a procession to St Peter’s for the second half.
Sharon was to write and direct the play, Rev. Roger Bayldon became the producer and the professional artists in the 2009 play waived their fees to see if it would work.
TPP is a community play; it welcomes those of all faiths and none, professional and non-professional performers. It has also involved Routes to Roots – an organisation for the homeless and those in drug and alcohol abuse recovery.
Although the play follows the last stages of Christ’s life it is emphatically not an exclusive affair. For example, the 2012 play’s last supper had, as its guests: a Canon, a lay member of The Third Order of St. Francis, someone of dual heritage, a number in recovery, ex-homeless, … all covering an age range of fifteen to 80+ years.
Passion plays in Britain go back to medieval times when simple religious plays – not just about the passion, but from any part of the Bible – were acted out in Church. In the early days, could prove to be an uncomfortable acting experience, as ‘wicked’ characters, such as Herod, could put the actor at risk of damnation! At Oberammergau, to this day, actors receive a special pardon, the Ablass, before the performance. Then, as now, audiences are always more interested in the villains, so there were concerns that ‘bad’ characters such as the Devil would be too popular.
Eventually the plays moved outside the Church: first to the graveyard and then later developed into larger spectacles that travelled to towns’ market places, where the towns’ guilds would take on the responsibility for various stages in the cycles: bakers would look after the Last Supper, the carpenters the crucifixion and so on. These plays were called ‘Mystery’ and ‘Miracle’ plays. In York, one year, out of a then total population of 5000, 2000 took part. Today the Mysteries are still performed in York and re-enactments of Christ’s death and resurrection happen all over the world; the most famous, Oberammergau, is performed every ten years.
During the build up to the first production of Poole’s Passion in 2009 Sharon’s mother became ill then died; to a degree, the creation of the first play was a catharsis; Through The Eyes of the Child became an immediate response to her mother’s illness and ultimate death.
During rehearsal, Sharon realised the play – which had until then been a fairly ordinary retelling of the life and death of Jesus – needed another perspective: ‘I decided to frame the play through the eyes of a child,’ she recalls. ‘Children have an honesty, they ask questions’.
A different actor is chosen each production to take on the role of Jesus, this forces the regulars (of whom there are many) to respond to the new interpretation, to work in another way rather than falling into a comfortable pattern of performance. Whilst the role is not cast just to be different – previous Jesuses were an agnostic, a Nigerian and, in 2012, a woman – the fact that Stuart Glossop is the second white male to play Jesus is indicative that nothing is cast, as it were, in stone. As Sharon recalls of 2012, ‘The Arts Council suggested that we prepare a statement [about a female Jesus] in case there were any complaints. We did, but fortunately we did not have to use it.’
The Arts Council England grant permitted employing nine under-25s. For some of the more experienced interns this gave them the opportunity to lead, as was the case with lighting, stage management, photography and costume design. For others it was an apprenticeship role.
This year, the ‘child’ will for the first time be a girl – Gabriel Coyne from St James’ Primary, Pokesdown – whose family work on the production. The intergenerational aspect of the project has always been very important for TPP. The participants range in age from seven to 89 years. But inclusivity is not restricted to age, though. Routes to Roots acting workshops proved to be the bridge for two former homeless people to join and take active roles in the play: ‘When one joined, you could hardly hear his voice,’ remembers Sharon. ‘ I wondered at giving him the role of a soldier, but he flourished. His character had to interact with the audience and, at times, improvise. From never acting before he managed to perform for four nights in front of over 700 people.
This element of helping others to grow is all part of the fast-emerging tradition of the Poole Passion, although, strangely enough, the notion of TPP being a tradition is something that happened paradoxically right from the beginning. Sharon recalls: ‘After our first production in 2009 I spoke to someone who had wandered into St Peter’s for the final scenes from the pub opposite. She and her friends had seen the procession and come into the church on both nights. She told me: “We always come to the last part”… as if it had been happening for years.’
❱ The Poole Passion is performed every evening at 7.00 from 9-12 April with an additional matinée at 2.00 on 12 April. For more information or for tickets (£6; concessions £4) please call 01202 749085 or visit www.poolepassion.com