I’m following QMC chaplain and former theater director, the Rev. James Pacey, during rehearsals for He nottingham passion at St Mary’s in the Lace Market. Born and raised in Nottingham, James studied acting at Clarendon College and a BA in theater at NTU before putting on critically acclaimed productions such as king lear, and fire anorak. Initially, these careers may seem different, but James sees the links: “On a day-to-day basis, directing and being a ‘priest’ is about connecting with people, hearing their stories.” He Passion combines different elements: “We are entering a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. This is a wonderful thing for Nottingham – a true celebration of community, faith and theatre.”
Nottingham city center is crisp on a cool February afternoon: cafes, restaurants and bars buzz with warmth and life. I walk quickly through the Lace Market and find the door that leads to the choir room and then to the vaulted body of the main church.
James is working with his assorted cast (including Ade Andrews, aka Nottingham’s Robin Hood, who plays Judas) on the scene where Pilate and his wife wake up being brought to Jesus, the ensuing trial, the choice between Jesus and Barabbas, the release of Barabbas and the Stations of the Cross. The creative process is palpable, the cast totally engaged, which excites James: “What I love is that we are taking a diverse group, collaborating on a story…. It’s wonderfully uplifting and fun, and enormously beneficial to my own faith.’ No matter what level the audience approaches the play, there is significant engagement: “People come to the theater in a way they wouldn’t come to church: it’s inviting, non-threatening, and enveloping.”
This is a rewarding experience and James’s fifth performance: previous productions have run in Newark, Southwell, Cambridge and Hucknall. “Each version is slightly different…. Sometimes I feel like George Lucas with Star Wars, tweaking it every time it’s re-released! Each production is different because each actor brings a unique perspective, angle and look.”
Nottingham city center is crisp on a cool February afternoon: cafes, restaurants and bars buzz with warmth and life.
The actors continue to work, James watching closely, offering positive feedback and encouragement, plus a director’s forensic attention to detail. Sometimes he unravels the psychology of the characters, other times he invites us to think about the actors: “What is happening to Pilate at this moment? How could this affect the way you say this line…?
Conversations come and go. Sections are traversed, striking dramatic gilt to give it shape, before continuing. There is a short break, before the scene repeats once more from above, without interruption. The enhanced artist polish is clear: lines flow with energy and focus, and a stronger, more satisfying sense of dramatic drive.
James combines a sense of technical logistics manager with priestly empathy. It’s an attitude this (amateur) cast fully reflects, confirming his view that the effectiveness of actors boils down to attitude: “I’ve worked with some ‘amateur’ actors who are absolutely professional in their approach and some professionals who are ‘ t- and vice versa! If people are passionate, have a sense of fun and commitment, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been performing all your life or if it’s your first time on stage.”
He is aware of the differences and connections between vocations, having completed a master’s degree on the links between drama and liturgy. “…both are about true, honest and truthful narratives…. the best and most moving worship is like the theater when we are completely absorbed in the narrative being presented. When we really believe in what we’re doing, something powerful and inexplicable takes over.’”
St Mary’s, with its impressive space, is an ideal setting, but why present it here now? “At the invitation of Tom (Gillum, the Vicar). It is an impressive space with so much offer the city that, given the creative axis of the Lace Market, the Passion it is an ideal project that can support their mission.”
Of course, Passions isn’t just a British phenomenon, but dates back to the 13th century, its roots in the account of Jesus’ trial and death in church services. They quickly became living dramas incorporating local traditions and interests over the centuries in places like Britain, Germany, Italy, Brazil, the United States, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Sri Lanka, and Mexico.
On a day-to-day basis, the management and the ‘priest’ consist of connecting with the people, listening to their stories.
The central aspects of the drama have clashed with formal and informal language. The priests quickly understood that this was an excellent outreach opportunity. James explains, “The play allows people to enter the story in a way that the church doesn’t…. There is also a wonderful sense of community, uniting people both inside and outside the church…. And that’s not to mention the real story: whether people believe it or not, the story touches a deeply emotional and spiritual level… (The) themes of sacrifice, love, betrayal and despair: it has it all.”
In the Middle Ages, this powerful story received provocative treatment. In their drive towards a well-defined story of good vs. evil, the game makers deployed anti-Semitic ideas. James is well aware of this historical stain: “Any anti-Semitism on Passion Plays must be resisted. I am indebted to Ed Kessler of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, who was instrumental in helping us ensure that… (we) resist any simplistic caricature and actively seek ways not only to resist but also to speak out against anti-Semitism.”
The Nottingham Passion it takes a lot that is good, and a lot that needs to be carefully addressed. For James, the central image is reconciliation. As Barabbas and Jesus walk side by side, one just released, the other nearing death, “We staged it simply: as the music plays, Barabbas walks out slowly, afraid. He walks past Jesus, looking into his eyes. That conveys everything: understanding, gratitude and understanding of who Jesus is and what he came to do. That to me is the Gospel…. If I can give the public a glimpse of that, I’ll be happy!”
Ultimately, of course, it all comes back to the people: “He Passion it can only work on the strength of the cast’s commitment. I am truly blessed to work with such a diverse group of dedicated and brilliant people.”
The Nottingham Passion Play will be performed at St Mary’s in Lace Market on March 31. and and April 1