On Good Friday morning you couldn’t walk up Eastgate Street to Chester Cross for the crowds. But this wasn’t because of shoppers out for an early bird bargain, but the city centre streets of Chester thronged with 2,500 people to witness the first ever performance of the City Passion Play. Hundreds of volunteer actors, singers and children told the story of the last days of the life of Jesus with the city’s heritage, shops and glorious cathedral providing the backdrop to one of life’s best known stories.
Under a sunny Easter sky, spectators witnessed Jesus enter the city through the Eastgate Clock arch before being welcomed by fans and followers waving palm fronds and the drums of Karamba Samba at Chester Cross. On the steps of St Peter’s Church, Caiaphas and Annas charge him with blasphemy before sending him to trial at the Town Hall Square. The Last Supper was on the historic Rows and a bench outside Blackstocks Fish & Chip shop on Northgate Street was the setting for the Garden of Gethsamane. Jesus’s road to Calvary was a short distance to Chester Cathedral, here the crowd fell silent for the moving scene of the Crucifixion as Matt Baker’s “Yet Hope I”, described by Prince Charles on a visit to the city in 2014 as ‘intensely beautiful’, resounded around the area in front of the famous West Door.
I happened to be standing next to the Vice-Dean of Chester Cathedral, as people came up to us both to congratulate us on the performance, saying things like: ‘I have never been so moved,’ ‘I have never seen Chester like this’, and ‘the best thing I have ever seen in the city‘.
I had the privilege of being in the Steering Group pulled together for 12 weeks to plan and produce what we eventually called the “City Passion Play” Around the table were church leaders from Chester Cathedral, a local Methodist church, a Quaker, a “new church stream” leader, a pioneer curate who helps lead a local Theatre Group called B-It Theatre Company, and me a Baptist Minister. We represented Churches Together in Chester and Link Up. With us was Jo Sykes, the chair of the Chester Mystery Plays and Matt Baker the director of a local Theatre Company called Theatre in the Quarter. The Chester Mystery Plays form a spectacular festival presented mainly by members of the local community under professional direction. They are performed in Chester every five years, with the most recent production being in 2013 in the nave of Chester Cathedral and the next full production being planned for 2018. Matt is the director a local Theatre Company called Theatre in the Quarter, he is Chester born and bred and is a multi-talented composer, arranger and performer, he had also worked with the Chester Mystery Plays to produce the 2013 play. Without Jo and Matt’s involvement we would never have produced such a high quality play and performance.
The cast and chorus were drawn from the local churches, the local community and from previous cycles of the Chester Mystery Plays. They were joined by youngsters from 4 local Primary schools who had their role to play as did Karamba Samba, soldiers from Roman Tours, the Town Crier David Mitchell and Lucius the donkey! The City Passion Play was a wonderful example of partnership not ownership, one of the values of Link Up, it could never have been performed if just one organisation or church had tried to do it and we also had people of faith, no faith and some faith all working together. As the local paper wrote in its review of the performance: “Was this just a religious experience for the Christians in Chester? I don’t think so… this was also a city spectacle, a story-telling, a theatrical performance, a community project, a Thing to Do at Easter, call it what you like it needs to be done next year, the year after that and the year after that!!” So here we are again just 48 hours away from the 2017 performance of the Chester City Passion Play – Good Friday 14 April – on the streets of Chester City Centre . Come and witness and be involved in this wonderful occasion!
Click on the link below to watch an 8 minutes video of last year’s City Passion Play: