Although the Edinburgh Easter Play has been around since 2005, you could say it’s a bit overlooked. I recall how one year (I think when the tramworks on Princes Street were having a bank-holiday break) the aural impact of this open-air drama grabbed the attention of shoppers in a powerful way. Since our city’s main shopping street has a unique feature, it seems sensible to capitalise on a potentially captive audience.
But on the whole, events like this are sadly swamped by the irritating ding of trams, the rumble of buses, and the general hubbub of consumerism. Moreover, it was a hardy bunch who ventured into the chilly depths of Princes Street Gardens West on Holy Saturday, down by the railway line, nearby the dismantled Ross Fountain, under dreich, grey skies. Clearly, the weather wasn’t celebrating the season.
If I’m honest, I was coaxed from my comfy flat to watch this production because it looked like a similar concept to five years ago, when I was one of a selection of writers chosen to contribute a monologue. Each depicted a character from the Passion, and the audience were moved to a different location for each oration, like a ‘Stations of the Cross.’
This year, with fewer playing areas, things seemed simpler on the surface. However, the number of players, complexity of movement, and pace of delivery put this production in a different league from the start. The cast introduced the audience to the story of Christ in a constant swirl of movement, swapping lines among them in a quick-fire relay. The occasional technical blip where a head-mic cut out (a result, perhaps, of the biting wind) made this whirling opening more impressive, since the cast needed the script fully memorised.
I had the uncharitable thought that this was triply impressive because the cast (except Duncan Rennie who played Jesus) was what we call amateur. This is often a pejorative term, yet ‘amateur’ implies a person who does things for love, not money. What’s more, this was a devised script, which meant that it had been written by the performers. Everyone involved had been brought together from a broad section of the community, and created this piece over many weeks of hard work.
Putting theatrical snobbery aside, while trying to stave off shivering, I began to assess the production differently. With the emphasis this year of telling the Gospel story anew, there was a lot of script to get through, and many new characters to be introduced. There was a welcomed focus on women – some, unmentioned in the Gospels – and some characters often glossed over, notably Barabbas, played with vigour by David McBeath.
The first section focused on Christ’s birth and early years (including when the parents lost the boy because he’d lagged behind at the temple to ask difficult questions) then moved on to his ‘ministry’ as various people told of his parables, miracles, and teaching. Despite the wordy script, the action flowed and, in one dramatic contretemps between hot-fisted Barabbas and hot-headed Simon (Kevin Edie), there was palpable tension.
There were also humourous touches, such as Jesus wanting to bring a few friends for supper – then turning up with twelve! The ‘feast’ theme was developed in the telling of the feeding of the crowds. After a re-enactment of loaves and fishes being multiplied through sharing (which is what that miracle is really about) the cast broke the fourth wall and came to the
audience with pieces of broken bread. This could have come across as corny but, in fact, was done with full enjoyment for all – a genuine act of agape.
You could say they were preaching to the converted. I suspect the audience were mainly ‘churched’ and very few Princes Street shoppers would have ventured into the Gardens given the threat of rain. Yet what I admire about the Easter Play is the lack of evangelical proselytising. With its message of inclusivity, love, and peace, and the emphasis on the marginalised – particularly women – this play was firmly founded on the complex theology of ‘social gospel’ rather than evangelism.
For the next section, the audience were guided to a new playing area where they found a tableaux of the cast representing Da Vinci’s Last Supper – again, a key image in the ‘feast’ metaphor. We were told, it’s not about here and now; it’s about the bigger picture. Many of the difficult concepts of Christianity were voiced, such as living in unity, not harbouring resentment, and respecting one another, but never as simple platitudes. Of ‘loving your enemy,’ we were asked, “Is that so hard?” Crucially, the question was left unanswered.
Another violent scene between Barabbas and Jesus led onto a subtle and moving depiction of the crucifixion, followed by the coming together of two key women characters. Christ’s mother, Mary (Irene Beaver) and the mother of Judas Iscariot (Sally North) might well have known each other at the time, but to script and enact this imagined encounter that spoke of reconciliation in a thoroughly contemporary way was a crowning moment. Without thorns.
Personally, I don’t buy into Christianity’s resurrection myth, and I worried that this aspect of the drama might turn a bit glib. But yet again, the ‘feast’ theme came to the fore by telling the story of the Road to Emmaus, since it was after meeting a man on that road that the disciples realised how Christ was still ‘among them’ in the breaking of the bread. This brought the idea of ‘communion’ full circle: re-telling the same old story, but with freshness and depth.
As far as passion-play performances go, this was a near-perfect example of a community project that was a credit to all who took part. As a piece of theatre, on a very chilly Bank Holiday weekend, this production deserved a bigger audience. Let’s hope Easter falls later next year.
For more on the Easter Play click here.