Describing the Manchester Passion is not as easy as it sounds. Culturally, its nearest reference point is the film of Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). However, instead of using songs specifically written to refer to Jesus, it has taken a number of recent pop/rock songs from the region, which have some link to the story of Jesus, and inserted them into a passion play. Furthermore, instead of locating the story halfway between ancient Judea and 70s America, the events take place in the centre of modern-day Manchester. Did I mention that , it's performed live in front of a crowd of tens of thousands, and includes a sort of walk of witness type procession through the streets of the city centre? Or that occasionally the drama is interrupted for some "on the street" interviews with some of those taking part in the procession?
As always the reaction to the BBC's announcement of this programme was mixed. Some felt it trivialised the gospel and that songs such as "Wonderwall" were totally inappropriate for a re-enactment of such a precious story. Others felt it was an incredible opportunity to bring the story of Jesus back to the streets, and backed it accordingly. Personally I always like to reserve judgment on such issues until I have had the chance to witness them for myself.
What was immediately apparent from watching just the opening few minutes was what a huge event it was. From the opening high shots of the event I would estimate that around 50,000 people attended the free event.1 Certainly BARB reports that over half a million watched it live on BBC3, and Ekklesia claim that 600,000 watched the late night repeat on BBC2.
Some of the criticisms of the programme have overlooked the logistical difficulties associated with such a project. So whilst some of the singing was out of tune, the same phenomenon can be witnessed every year watching the TV highlights of people performing their own songs at Glastonbury. The theological explanation for the action that was unfolding was perhaps not as refined as one might desire, but given that a sizeable percentage of the audience, (both at home and particularly in Albert Square, Manchester itself) will have been utterly unfamiliar with the passion narratives this point should surely be overlooked. Certainly the Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCUllogh, claimed that the Easter Sunday service was "standing room only...the largest congregation I have ever seen".
What then of the content of the play. The table below lists the action taking place, the songs sung during it (with the original artists in brackets).
You're Gonna Need Someone On Your Side (Morrissey)
Cast No Shadow (Oasis)
Love Will Tear Us Apart (Joy Division)
Virgin Mary sings to Jesus
Search For The Hero (M People)
News & Interviews
Judas Ponders his Betrayal&
Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now (The Smiths)
Sit Down (James)
Search For The Hero (M People)
Blue Monday (New Order)
I Am The Resurrection (The Stone Roses)
Angels (Robbie Williams)
News and Interviews
Details of Crucifixion
Mary at the Cross
Sunshine After The Rain (Elkie Brooks)
I Am The Resurrection - reprise (Stone Roses)
Angels - reprise (Robbie Williams)
One of the most frequent ways that the production has been criticised has been citing individual lines from the lyrics of the songs as inappropriate. This, I think, is to miss the point. Whilst there are a number of marked similarities to Jesus Christ Superstar (even the acting looking similar at one point), the songs are not meant to act as perfect summations of each scenario.
There are two ways to look at this. As someone who has essentially grown up with these songs, I have never really considered what the majority of these songs are actually about, or known all the lyrics. Instead they conjure up an array of feelings, emotions and memories which, in turn, shed light on the emotions surrounding the passion narratives, as well as linking those stories to those songs in the viewers consciousness. Music has an evocative power, and simply hearing particular songs years later brings back memories such as James' "Sit Down" causing dance-floor havoc as many of those present foolishly accepted their invitation literally. For many, particularly those present on the night, this process will also be reversed, and next time they hear one of these songs there minds will flip back to that night in Manchester City Centre.
To borrow a phrase from Kreitzer, in a way this production "reverses the hermeneutical flow"2 from the original narrative to the songs of the last few decades. Often imagery or concepts from the bible have been used to express more mundane emotions or situations,which may or may not have derived from some artists' messiah complexes. What Manchester Passion does is to turn that process on its head and put the derivative works alongside the originals to bring out new glimpses into well known tunes / stories.
Visually, this re-telling has many advantages. For British viewers the film's contemporisation of the story is far more personal than even some of the more recent attempts to relocate the story in the modern world. Whilst picturing the story in 70's New York (Godspell), or 80's Montreal (Jesus of Montreal) or more contemporary New York (Hero!) brings things home to a certain extent, seeing British riot police tussle with Jesus's British followers, whilst bundling the man himself into a British police van, all within the heart of a very British city, is far more visceral.
There are a number of nice modernising touches as well. Judas's betrayal is signified by him taking a call on a mobile phone. When Jesus buys the food for the last supper from a street vendor, the man has to put down his copy of the "Da Vinci Code". Instead of a cock crowing we have a blast from a siren.
There's also quite an emphasis on the cross as an instrument of torture, even presenter Keith Allen taking time to explain the methodology for those not in the know, strangely reminiscent of an over pushy evangelist. There are a few places where the programme comments on contemporary situations as well. Jesus, we are told, was arrested for a combination of inciting religious hatred and indirectly promoting terrorism. He is brought in wearing Guantanamo Bay style orange overalls.
It's always interesting analysing the parts of the passion narratives that are included and excluded by passion plays, particularly with reference to anti-Semitism. It is noticeable that the religious leaders were entirely absent from this production. Jesus is arrested by the police, and tried by Pilate. In a similar vein, whilst it is the (large) crowd that condemns him, they do not accept that his blood is on them and their children.
Perhaps one of the more interesting features of the script is where Keith Allen explains that whilst we'd all like to think that we are like Jesus, we are really much more like Pilate, flawed and compromised. We hear so often that people are basically good, and that it's important to "be yourself" that Allen's words are unusually bold and prophetic. Sadly they are hurried, and drowned out by the hoopla of a giant cross making its way to the main stage.
Sadly, from that point on, the production seems to lose it's way. Allen doesn't handle his role as "Pilate" nearly as well as he hosts the first half of the programme, and the last few songs seem more forced than the earlier ones. Worse still, the giant half-tonne cross is clearly not one that Jesus can actually be crucified on, and so the end of the trial is bungled, and attempts to pass things off with the dubious explanation that we don't do executions in public today.
Thankfully, a few minutes later we realise that the driving factor in trying to get Jesus off stage as quickly as possible is to enable actor Darren Morfitt time to dash up the clock tower of Manchester Town Hall. Whilst the TV fails to really capture the moment, the testimonies of those who were there suggest that portraying Jesus's resurrection this way was particularly impressive.
This finale sums up Manchester Passion in many ways. On the plus side bold inventive and presenting the story in a new way to an audience largely unfamiliar with it, on their own turf. On the minus side some of the execution suffered from this being the kind of event it is impossible to properly rehearse. Given the size of the venture, the fact that so much went right is an achievement in itself, and means that it will be remembered for what it was, rather than for the passion play where the resurrection didn't happen because Jesus was only halfway up the clock tower.
Anyone wanting to see a clip from Manchester Passion can watch Darren Morfitt as Jesus singing "Love Can Tear us Apart" at You Tube
1This estimate would seem to be quite a way off. Amongst others, Ekklesia claim that it was only 8,000, and others sources such as the Church Times lists it as only 7000. That said neither those publications, or any of those which cite similar figures cite their sources. And having stood in a larger crowd than that on numerous occasions I would expect the figure to be far higher. Sadly the Manchester Passion representative I spoke to said that because the event was free they did not know the attendance.
2 Kreitzer L.J., The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow (Biblical Seminar, No 17). Sheffield Academic Press (1993)