The Biblical narrative that is the foundation of the Christian faith has been described, on numerous occasions, as “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Even if you accept this to be the case, however, it does’t automatically follow that it’s also bound to be the greatest piece of theatre ever performed, especially when done so by a largely amateur cast in the middle of some public gardens in the invariably breezy centre of the Scottish Capital.
As a retelling of the Greatest Story, this was a worthy effort
Admittedly, there’s a genuine sense of occasion, of “an event”, around this latest incarnation of what has become a regular Edinburgh tradition on Easter Saturday. With a cast of nearly 50, this annual single performance “Passion Play” would undoubtedly have a genuine sense of scale if it wasn’t dwarfed by both the openness of West Princes Street Gardens and the looming silhouette of Edinburgh Castle—a uniquely militaristic backdrop by any standards. In terms of the performers, admittedly, the heavy lifting is undoubtedly in the hands of professional actor Duncan Rennie as Jesus, who certainly shines with genuine self-belief.
That said, many of the cast give sterling service, especially David McBeath as a burly Peter and Elaine Wallace as Jesus’s mother, Mary—who, in a change from previous years, is the principal narrator of the story in Kamala Jane Santos’s retelling of the story. In terms of the casting there are also some unexpected surprises: David Edie is a somewhat older than expected “doubting” Thomas, while Thomas Mugglestone proves (within the limited material he is given) to be a surprisingly young and almost sympathetic Judas, who at least is saved from being the universally despised traitor of some retellings.
Producer and director Suzanne Lofthus wisely opted to have all speaking roles miked up to avoid the whole spectacle becoming a monotone shouting match. Admittedly, this led to some (potentially unavoidable) technical problems, ranging from unexpected signal cut-outs to the noise of the wind and mutterings from supporting cast members that we probably weren’t supposed to hear. Meantime, the show’s choice of incidental music—decidedly Celtic-tinged, albeit with often more of an Irish sensibility than the “pronounced Scottish accent” promised in the programme—was both atmospheric… and distracting, at least for a seasoned film soundtrack buff like myself.
Theatrically speaking, though, this show’s main problems were inevitably linked to its outdoor, promenade nature; late to start, its two-hour running time proved decidedly lethargic. Nor did it make any notable use of its locations; the occasional shifts from one spot to another had little dramatic impact beyond undermining any narrative thrust that might have developed. As a retelling of the Greatest Story, this was a worthy effort, but certainly not life-changing theatre.