I didn’t imagine I would exclaim these very words walking along a street in London. But yes, Friday 19 April 2019, these exact words passed my lips as I walked towards St Martin’s in the Fields. It was just after 10.00 hours and people had been busy in Trafalgar Square for several hours setting up enormous screens, speakers, electrical equipment and holding areas. We had arrived early in Trafalgar Square knowing that thousands of people would be attending the two outdoor performances at 12.00 and 15.00 hours. As we went to the Crypt Cafe for a quick coffee, the actors were arriving at St. Martins in the Fields to change and get ready for the first performance. We happened to recognise James Burke-Dunsmore whom we had previously seen give an incredible, moving performance as Jesus at Wintershall.
You may have heard of Wintershall in the Surrey hills, home of Peter and Ann Huntley. For several decades it’s also been the home of theatrical productions – The Life of Christ, The Passion and the Wintershall Nativity; open-air productions using the stunning scenery of the estate as a backdrop.
I first attended a performance of The Life of Christ in June 2000. My friend Juliet, who taught Year 6 at a school in Wimbledon, was involved in the daily performances for the week with her class of pupils. She suggested I should go as I would enjoy it, and she was certainly right. I watched spellbound as a cast of about 200 adults and young people transported me to the life and times of Jesus – all set outdoors with biblical costumes, live animals and stirring music. It was such a moving experience that I returned the following year and then subsequently took a coach full of people.
For the past ten years, the Wintershall Players have taken the Passion of Jesus to thousands of people in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday. Using a cast of about eighty, the assembled audience and passers-by were gripped by scenes of how the occupying Roman army dealt with anyone who posed a threat. Over a period of 90 minutes, the story of Jesus preaching, teaching and healing unfolded. The actors concentrated on the mixture of events in Holy Week. The adulation of Palm Sunday followed by rejection, ridicule, denial and betrayal, culminated in a horrendous crucifixion scene which left the audience in silence. The sight of watching a Jesus actor, bloodied and crying-out in pain, lifted high on a cross in London`s Trafalgar Square was one of the most powerful images I’ve witnessed.
I met people from all over the country who had travelled specifically to watch the performance, as well as visitors to London from America, China and Japan. Families sat on the steps leading to the National Gallery and individuals, groups and coach parties squeezed in to sit on the ground or watch from the balustrades above. Wherever you were seated or standing, the screens were positioned to give perfect vision from all angles. Jesus’s words clearly rang out against a background of red London buses and black London cabs from Horse-guards Parade to Whitehall. The sun blazed down and I felt very fortunate to have chosen a seat with the shelter of a small tree. I chatted to Jean, a Roman Catholic lady who attended every year, three Anglican friends from Romford who like me, had decided that this was the year they would finally be in Trafalgar Square for the special Good Friday performance. Christians, those uncertain of their faith, sceptics and passers-by unaware of the drama, filled every available space. There was a palpable sense of awe and yet incredulity at the unfolding drama. The atmosphere was electric.
At the end of the performance Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, led us in prayer for peace and reconciliation. We ended by standing where we were to say the Lord’s Prayer together. What a powerful moment that was. Complete strangers who would never meet again were suddenly blessing each other with the words, “The peace of the Lord be with you.”. It took nearly an hour to clear the Square ready for the next performance!
What is your experience of Good Friday? It seems to me that “Christ crucified and risen” is a reality that is not just important for reflection one day a year, but it affects us every day of every year.