The crowds of Trafalgar Square will find themselves caught up in Jesus’ last hours in Jerusalem as a full-scale re-enactment of The Passion of Jesus returns on Good Friday.
The production by the Wintershall company regularly attracts more than 20,000 people to its two performances, first staged in Trafalgar Square in 2010.
The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection will be told by a cast and crew of over a hundred volunteers, and will feature Peter Bergin playing ‘Jesus’ for the first time.
Bergin is an English teacher at St John the Baptist School in Woking as well as a trained actor.
He said: “When you’re in church and listening to the Passion being read, it’s easy to sit there and picture Jesus as Da Vinci’s Jesus, with a serene impassiveness, whereas when you’re rehearsing it, you have to delve into the emotions going through his head.
“I think it would be easy to be play Jesus as above all the human emotion, but I think that’s the most important thing about Jesus: God was made man and it culminates in that Gethsemane sequence, where Jesus is begging for his life.”
Growing up nearby, Bergin watched the productions of the Life of Christ and The Nativity, staged on the Wintershall Estate in the Surrey countryside.
He heard via word-of-mouth that they were advertising for an understudy for Jesus, a role he took up under James Burke-Dunsmore in 2019.
The Passion includes a re-enactment of Jesus’ crucifixion, with the large crosses of Jesus and the thieves forming a jarring contrast to the iconic sights of Trafalgar Square.
Bergin added: “There’s a line in the script where the Centurion says: ‘I’ve never seen someone die like that, with such peace’.
“On the one hand, I’m trying to give as peaceful a portrayal of the crucifixion as I can, while at the same time screaming in agony as it’s a horrific, barbaric execution method.”
Yet both Bergin, and producer Charlotte de Klee, are keen to stress that the production does not end at the crucifixion.
De Klee, whose father Peter Hutley wrote the play following a deep conversion aged 68, said: “If we left it at the cross, where’s the hope in the Christian faith?
“This is a story of hope. This is good news; it’s not the end, it’s the beginning.”
The cast is composed of a diverse team of volunteers, from a range of Christian and faith backgrounds, as well as with varying acting experience.
Both Bergin and de Klee mention the youthful energy which this year’s disciples, a group of 19-to-21-year-olds, have brought to the production.
Bergin said: “There’s something a bit edgier about the disciples. It feels more like a young political group.
“It’s really interesting to see Jesus’ role in saying to them: ‘We’re not here to fight the Romans, or overthrow the system. We’re here to teach love – that is the job.’”
One committed cast member is Trish Bonnett, who makes a 75-mile journey to Wintershall for rehearsals from Hitchin, where she is the Pastoral Assistant at the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady Immaculate and St Andrew.
Bonnett’s love for the Wintershall productions, which she has been watching for over 20 years, will be channelled into impressive variety of roles.
Over the course of the 90 minutes, Bonnett described how she will clean Trafalgar Square, harangue Jesus for his friendliness towards tax-collector Zacchaeus, almost buy a dove to offer sacrifice in the Temple, “have a right go at Peter” when he denies Jesus, join the jeering crowd, and eventually mourn Jesus’ death.
Bonnett said: “The jeering bit is the bit I have to act. The real bit is when I just stand there and watch the scene as it just feels like you’re going through it.
“From the moment I first came to Wintershall, I realised that I was experiencing the closest I had ever been to Christ and living out his story.”
De Klee explained that people come for a variety of spiritual, cultural, or educational reasons, and views the diversity of the audience as an integral part of the production.
She said: “I think it’s easier to come to Trafalgar Square than to walk into a church – and the chance that, if they walked into a church, they would learn the story of the Passion or find out who this man Jesus is, is often quite unlikely.”
While it was a census which left Mary and Joseph turned away by an innkeeper in Bethlehem, data from the 2021 UK Census shows a decline in the number of those identifying as Christian.
For the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”, a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011.
London remains the most religiously diverse region of England in 2021, with over a quarter (25.3%) of all usual residents reporting a religion other than “Christian”.
As de Klee left to continue with final preparations – Pontius Pilate’s horses were due to arrive and Jesus’ tomb needed attention – she added: “We have no clue if anyone is going to turn up or not, or if it’s going to pelt with rain.
“But we will be there to tell the story of Good Friday and to tell the story of Easter.”
The Passion will be performed at 12 noon and 3:15pm in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday, 7 April 2023. Further information can be found at Home | Wintershall Estate.