‘If I were Lifted up from earth ...’

The advertisement [inserted into Issue 9 - ed.] attracted my attention - AANDBC Theatre Company were producing If I were lifted up from earth ... at the Battersea Arts Centre during Holy Week 1998 using ‘the New Testament as translated by William Tyndale in 1534’ as the text. I went on the first night, having never before attended a Promenade Passion Play. Battersea Arts Centre is situated in an ornate Victorian building, previously Wandsworth Town Hall, but this in fact enhanced the production. We were drawn to the large foyer with its impressive stone staircase, balustrades and landings by a haunting vocal melody with no distinguishable words - the mysterious murmurings of a passing crowd. Only those near the foot of the stairs could see Mary washing the feet of Jesus with her tears, but a sense of expectation grew as we ascended the steps, proclaimed on the top landing that as He was lifted up, He would draw all men unto Himself.

The theatre auditorium, with stark, black walls, a central block stage and no seating except some steps along the walls, added to the atmosphere as the fig tree was cursed - the rest of the action took place amongst us, the crowd, so one had the sense of participation which grew to personal challenge as the evening progressed. As in any crowd, one could not always see what was happening, but one could always hear: the smallness of the cast necessitated that sometimes the disciples declaimed the words of Jesus in the words and the nuances brought out by Tyndale’s account of the story which is so familiar to us in the words of the Authorised Version.

The cleansing of the whole person by the washing of the feet (and Peter’s head) was dramatically emphasized by water trickling down a large brown board, washing away the dye to leave a glistening white surface, thus demonstrating the efficacy of Christ’s cleansing powers.

The Last Supper Scene (‘Is it I?’) and Judas’ treachery led up to the crucifixion scene which was reverently (and ingeniously) done, and the rapt facial expressions of the women at the foot of the cross gave authenticity. The disciples sleeping in the garden while Christ suffered mental anguish, Judas’ betrayal with a kiss, Peter’s denial, the mood change of the crowd demanding the release of Barabbas, and Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus to death by crucifixion in spite of his protestations of the prisoner’s innocence, were all so realistically portrayed that I identified myself with the characters and asked how I would have behaved in those circumstances. Judas’ later despair, the darkness, the reactions of the two thieves also being crucified climaxed with the conviction of the centurion ‘of a surety this was the son of God.’

This production did not end with the Crucifixion and just a short reference to the Resurrection, but concentrated on Christ’s appearances to Mary Magdalene and the disciples until His ascension: Jesus forgave Peter’s denial (entrusting him to ‘Feed my lambs’), Thomas’ doubts and the slowness to understand of the two disciples walking to Emmaus. I needed to see this play more than once to absorb the details fully, but the unadorned words of scripture, grand because of the simplicity of Tyndale’s English, gave a memorable affirmation of the deity of Christ, the reality of His Resurrection, Christ’s forgiveness of the weaknesses of his followers, and His relevance to today’s world and our individual lives.

As I listened to Bach’s incomparable St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday (the Protestant equivalent of a Passion Play) I saw again the scenes at Battersea: drama and music can play complementary roles in deepening spirituality in an ecumenical, yet materialistic, age, and Gregory Thompson is to be congratulated on a unique idea so forcefully and successfully executed. The contemporary need to love our neighbour is best expressed in Tyndale’s timeless language ‘Lovest thou Me?’ - then ‘Feed my sheep.’

Eunice Burton, 10.5.1998

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