Norwich Passion Play will draw audience into Jesus’ final days  

Norwich Passion Play script-writer and actor, Emily Feltham, says its engaging nature aims to draw the audience into the play itself and bring the story of Jesus’ final few days on earth to life. Keith Morris reports.

A UEA masters graduate, and professional actor with Saltmine Theatre Company, Emily has written smaller pieces for schools, theatre companies and even the NHS. But the Passion Play, written first for use in Birmingham in 2019, is her first major production.

“Our vision was to tell the story of Jesus in a contemporary way. We tried to imagine that if he was alive in Birmingham or Norwich today what would he be doing, who would be talking to, what kinds of things would he be saying, who would he be challenging,” said Emily who also plays Mary Magdalene in the performance. 

“To begin to unpack the story into a contemporary style, I had to go really deeply into the words of the Gospel and the words of Jesus, comparing the different Gospels and the different accounts and then updating it and rewriting it with modern illustrations for example. It was a fun process and I really enjoyed it while also finding it quite challenging, but I was also very pleased with the results. 

“What came out of the performances in Birmingham was something bigger than any of us could ever have imagined. So many things could have gone wrong on the day as we were performing in a busy city centre. But the impact of it and the amount of people who came to watch it was far bigger than even I had imagined.

“Any performance you do several times is going to evolve a bit, especially in this sort of immersive performance when you see which bits actually work and which bits you might actually deliver to a few people rather than the whole audience, like you would in a theatre.

“We had a bit where the cast passed phones around in the crowd with a YouTube video of part of the trial scene where Jesus was being interrogated – an experiment with different sorts of media to try to convey the secrecy around Jesus’ trial.”

Emily studied for an English degree in Oxford and then worked in a museum as an assistant curator of ethnography in the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter. 

She then moved to Norwich for a year, studying a Master’s Degree in the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Sainsbury’s Research Unit at the UEA. It involves research into indigenous peoples and the art they produce, the stories the tell and the way that they share them.

“I was intrigued and discovered a lot about my own understanding of God in the way that other people groups talk about and relate to God and live spiritually in a way in which you tell stories as part of your everyday life.

“I was interested in how you can use theatre and performance to allow people whose first language is a spoken not written language to talk about themselves.

“Much of life is about telling stories and that is one of the powerful things about bringing the Passion Play onto the streets,” said Emily. 

“It immerses people in the story so instead of inviting people into a theatre where they sit down and they watch and listen to a story, it takes people and puts them right in the middle of the story. They can experience where they might be in the story and how they might react and actually end up having an investment in how the story ends, rather than just watching people perform.”

“There is something powerful about having a walking performance which turns you into an active audience even if you are just watching. You have to pursue the story and actively follow it rather than being passive and just taking it in.

“It can really blur the line between storytelling actors, local community cast members and the audience.

The local community cast are a really important part of the Passion Play and working with them is really amazing, says Emily, as is the sense of being a team and having an investment in the story and building relationships with the other cast members.

While living in Norwich, Emily attended St Thomas Norwich church and loved being a part of it. She joined a Gospel choir which sang in hospital wards and at weddings. 

“We are really passionate about getting individuals from different churches working together in something which is so public and central,” she said.

“After all, this is a story which unites all of us, whatever differences we have in doctrine or beliefs or the way we worship. This is a story we all want to get behind and share.

“After the Birmingham play, we had some beautiful stories and feedback afterwards of its impact on people. A lot of people were excited about it and asking questions about what are these people doing on the streets and what does it mean. Even the people who react negatively, it is well ‘why has this drawn such a response from you?,” said Emily.

“We want to start conversations. Churches can really use that catalyst of ‘something has happened’ to get people to discuss it and ask questions about it and feel excited about it. And having people around who can say, ‘well come down the pub to chat about it’ or ‘come to church to find out more’, that can be really special.” 

The Norwich Passion Play takes place on Easter Saturday, April 16 in Norwich city centre starting at Hay Hill from 11am and 3pm. Click here for more details.

Pictured above, Emily Feltham  outside the Forum in Norwich, location for the Norwich Passion Play, which she wrote.