Triangulating on Jesus, by Ben Jeapes

Image from the Abingdon Blog
“So, how are they doing Jesus this time?” my father asked. And when I coyly dodged the question, began to press with suggestions that got more and more outfield: a woman? A lightbeam? A hologram? No, none of those ...

The occasion was the third Abingdon Passion Play, which has become a three-yearly event. In 2013 we crucified an 18 year old Jesus in sub zero temperatures: he went on to study at RADA and hasn’t been out of work since. (If you blinked, you would have missed him in the first episode of the most recent Endeavour series.) In 2016 we crucified an appropriately 33 year old Jesus in the town marketplace. And in 2019 … he didn’t appear at all.

Or, given that I estimated the audience to be about 1000 strong, you could say that he appeared in about 1000 different ways.

With two semi-historical, semi-realistic productions under their belt, this year the producers went for something different. The look was modern, with contemporary costumes, and while there were crowd scenes with volunteer actors from the community, the bulk of the show was carried by three professional actors playing Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and Marcus, the centurion. Between them, they narrated and re-enacted the events of the Passion from their own points of view. The most creative licence was afforded the centurion, who sees him for the first time on the entry into Jerusalem: Jesus gives him a friendly smile as he heads for the Temple, and Marcus finds himself liking this man as he finally senses someone of moral strength and integrity in Jerusalem. That liking only increases as he compares the inner authority of Jesus to the moral weakness and venality of Pilate and the priests: later, of course, he has to oversee the crucifixion.

The result of the three viewpoints was to create effectively an invisible Jesus – a Jesus-shaped hole on stage that our imaginations filled in.

It’s not the first production to omit the central character, of course. The point of Waiting for Godot is that Godot never appears and it’s all about the ones doing the waiting. The eponymous Lieutenant Kije is a fictitious character whose assumed existence is just too useful to his fellow officers – until it turns out the Tsar wants to meet this great soldier, whereupon he has to die conveniently. But this was the first time I’ve seen it done with a character that everyone knows to be real and who you are meant to be picturing on stage. But it occurred to me that if you’re having difficulty with a scene or a character or an event in a narrative – say, it just isn’t working, or it comes out flat and unconvincing, or it’s actually too much to describe based on your own experience – maybe the answer is not to try at all? Just have characters who have experienced it, and give their own perspectives.

I should add that my father, who doesn’t generally Do modern productions, enjoyed it hugely.

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer.