Cheltenham Passion Play - Introduction to the Script


The Cheltenham Passion Play
Introduction to the Script
Good Friday 2000
When the Free Church Council of Cheltenham became part of Churches Together in Cheltenham, many felt that they wanted to continue the tradition of a Walk of Witness on Good Friday, but include all the Churches of Cheltenham and not just the Free Churches.  At the same time the Churches of Prestbury felt that they wanted to share the well-established Prestbury Passion Play with the whole of Cheltenham for the Millennium.  As those two thoughts came together, so the Cheltenham Passion Play was conceived.   One time Director of the Prestbury Passion Play, Daphne Philpott,  has given me extensive help in writing and re-writing the script.  The Script has arisen from ideas shared by Sara Jay, Daphne Philpott, Jonquil Harrison, Liz Holtham, Bob Lyle, Philip and Lucy Smith and all those who first met early in 1998 and walked the route!

The concept of our Passion play is very much inspired by the wonderfully creative work of Sara Jay.  The script is largely drawn from the words of the Bible.  The text that has been used is Eugene Peterson’s The Message with occasional use of the New Revised Standard Version and the Good News Bible.  It is worth quoting the blurb on the back cover of The Message.  In a way it captures some of the hopes we have for our own presentation of the Passion of Christ at Easter 2000.
It is commonly assumed that a book dealing with a holy God should sound elevated, stately, and ceremonial.   If this is how you’ve always viewed the New Testament you’re about to make a surprising discovery.

“One of he most striking features of the New Testament is that it was written in the street language of the day.  The idiom of the playground and marketplace - not the formal, lofty language of government decrees and historical documents.
“Written in the rhythms and idiom of contemporary language - the way you’d talk with friends, write a letter or discuss politics - The Message brings out the expressive, earthy flavour of the New Testament Greek.  Which means that, whether you’ve been reading the Bible for years or are exploring it for the first time.  The Message will startle and surprise you.  And it will allow you to experience firsthand the same power and directness that motivated its original readers to change the course of history many centuries ago.”

In the parts of Judas Iscariot, Joseph of Arimathea and Herod there is a certain degree of dramatic licence which contributes to the telling of the story without detracting from the biblical text.  Indeed there is justification for the way their parts are portrayed in the biblical text.  Any elaboration is drawn from the text, not imposed on it.
The play very deliberately avoids type-casting the Jews as the ‘bad guys’.  The whole point of the Gospel message is that we all share responsibility for the death of Jesus.  Various devices are used to suggest that Christ’s conflict was with all the powers that be - secular and religious.  Even more significant than that is the way the play emphasises that it is not a straightforward case of good guys and bad guys - the representative of the State in the Centurion  recognises Christ for who he is; and Joseph of Arimathea,  a member of the Council of religious leaders, offers Christ his tomb.
There is only a thin veil between what happened 2000 years ago and what is happening today - it is hoped that through the casting, and through the emphasis on ‘state authorities’ and ‘religious authorities’ rather than Roman and Jew there can be a merging of 2000 years ago with the present time.  Stewards who become soldiers ... and the part played by hot cross buns all contribute to this thin veil.

It was Sara Jay who pointed out to us in the very early stages of planning the wonderful structure of a five act play.  Although only four acts are seen on Good Friday afternoon, it is very much a five act play.  The invitation is there for all to receive to come back for the fifth act at 8-00 on Easter Sunday morning.

Our hope and prayer is very much that through the presentation of our play The Message can come home even more strongly as something of great relevance to us and our world.
Richard Cleaves Advent 1999

Copyright and Acknowledgements
The script of the Cheltenham Passion Play is copyright © Richard Cleaves, Highbury Congregational Church, Cheltenham.  Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H.Peterson, 1993, 1994, 1995.  Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.    The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.  The Good News Bible © Bible Society 1976.  The Baker © Nick Page.  A special thank you to Sara Jay whose Treatment for Cheltenham Passion Play 2000 has shaped the whole play ... and to Daphne Philpott for editing the script.

Cast - Easter 2000
The Cheltenham Passion Play is built around a small core cast of fifteen key characters, together with a large number of comparatively small but important parts, and as many extras as possible.  The core cast is made of Jesus and four quite distinct groups.  The followers of Jesus are made up not just of the Disciples but also of a group of Women.  Within each group there are four key people with significant parts; within each group of four, there is one who ‘gets it wrong’.  The opponents of Jesus are made up of two groups of three people.  Again, within each group of three one stands out this time in support of Jesus.  The use of a small core cast in this way makes the large scale production of the Passion Play manageable not only in terms of the people involved ... but it also helps people to follow the action.
Jesus                          Matthew Medhurst.
The Disciples.
Peter                           David Price
James                         Paul Kish
John                            David Lyle
Judas                          Peter Brown.  Judas is given quite a significant role from the beginning.  Whenever the text records dissent among the disciples, those words are given to Judas.  He therefore becomes the voice of dissent among the disciples.
                                    In addition there are eight other Disciples

The Women
Mary, Jesus’mother Wendy Dawson
Mary Magdalene      Chrisina Manuel
Woman of Samaria    Debbie Hunt
Zebedee’s Wife         Gail Harper.  Of the women the mother of James and John is the one who ‘gets it wrong’ wanting her sons to be at the top of the tree.
                                    The original intention was to have eight other women ... in the event we had twenty-four women in all.  At two key moments from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Way of the Cross they present the Message at the heart of the play.

The Religious Leaders
Caiaphas                    Glyn Jenkins. URC Minister
Annas                         Ted Crofton, Rural Dean
Joseph of Arimathea  Steve Osmond, Former secretary of Churches Together in Cheltenham
                                    Fundamental to the message of the play is the fact that Jesus was condemned by the Religious Leaders of his day.  In our play the Religious leaders of present day Cheltenham took these parts.  Within this group of three one, Joseph of Arimathea,  is, in our play, from the outset sympathetic towards Jesus.  This interpretation of Joseph Arimathea is prompted by John’s reference to the fact that Joseph of Arimathea was a Member of the CouncilThe Religious leaders are supported by servants and religious guards.  There were false witness in the Trial scene and at the foot of the cross.

The Civic Leaders
Pilate                          Dave Banyard, the Mayor of Cheltenham
Herod                         Ken Brightwell, the Town Crier
The Centurion            David Gibson
                                    A powerful part of the play was the involvement of the civic leaders of today’s Cheltenham in the parts of the Civic Leaders of Jesus’ day.  Again, within this group of three, one turns out in the end to be sympathetic towards Jesus, declaring in the final words at the Cross the true identity of Jesus.  The Civic Leaders were supported by Roman Guards.  Other small but important parts included Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, the two criminals at the crucifixion.

Other Parts
                                    Seven scenes were presented by church groups ...
The Feeding of the 5000       St Luke’s Church  This included providing Hot Cross Buns for people to share at the very beginning.  One family with a little boy has a key part to play - he is the one who provides the first five Hot Cross Buns ... later he provides the Hot Cross Bun for Jesus to share at the Last Supper.
Parable of the Sower Elim
Cleansing of the Temple       Cambray Baptist Church and St Matthew’s  This included providing Hot Cross Buns for sale ... among the crowd was one little girl, Emma Elliott,  who recognises Jesus for who he is.
Parable of the Vineyard        Harvest Arts
The Crucifixion                      Prestbury Churches
The Gardeners                      Highbury Congregational Church
Easter Breakfast                   The URC in Cheltenham - St Andrew’s
Narrator                                 Richard CleavesThe Narrator set the scene at the very beginning, when the Play arrived at the High Street, and at the very end on Good Friday, anticipating the return to the tomb on Easter Sunday.  In the Fifth Act, there was a more substantial involvement, leading the worship which was an important part of Easter Sunday morning.