Passion Play resurrected at the Playhouse

Dale Collings as Christus in the Passion Play. Picture: Mervyn Naidoo

Dale Collings as Christus in the Passion Play. Picture: Mervyn Naidoo

Published Apr 9, 2023


TO BRING to life the true meaning of Easter, a local cast of more than 130 spent nearly half-a-year fine tuning their dramatisation of the “Passion Play”, a production that was first acted out in Germany in 1634.

It returned to action at Playhouse Drama Theatre on Thursday, after a longer than usual 8-year break, due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown regulations, and will end on April 16.

The town of Oberammergau in Bavaria is the home of the play, where it is done in German, and happens every 10 years.

Under the banner of the Durban Catholic Players’ Guild, Africa got to stage its first passion play in 1952, with the blessings of the people of Oberammergau, and every 5-years thereafter.

The production focuses on Jesus Christ’s (Christus) last days on earth, before his crucifixion and resurrection.

Dale Collings as Christus in the Passion Play. Picture: Mervyn Naidoo

While the cast are volunteers with no training in acting, their desire to avail themselves for the “glory of God”, and fully embrace their respective roles has ensured that all the bittersweet outcomes, as described in bible scripture, was brought to life.

The kiss of death from Judas Iscariot (Anthony Dominic Sandiah) to Dale Collings, who plays Jesus in the Passion Play, currently showing at the Durban’s Playhouse Drama Theatre PICTURE: Nancy Lynne Brider

A team from the Sunday Tribune attended a rehearsal session this week, where props and costumes used in the production gave it a Jerusalem-like feel, reminiscent of the days when Roman rules held sway.

“Dear God, make us remember our lines…” , an actor prayed before going on stage

The opening scene shows John the Baptist doing the watery custom he was well-known for, including the baptism of Jesus.

Each scene is set on a giant revolve, a turntable-like platform that was specially made for this play when it first showed at the Playhouse in 1997.

While the audience takes in the drama at the foreground, on the opposite side of the revolve, the crew sets the stage for the following scene, which was Jesus and his disciples interacting with Lazarus and his family in this instance.

Anthony Dominic Sandiah plays the part of Judas Iscariot, the turncoat disciple of Jesus, who betrayed him with a kiss.

When Sandiah stepped on stage during Thursday’s opening performance he became the first cast member to play the same role six times.

Sandiah, whose passion play debut was as Simon of Cyrene in 1987, was tied with David Horner, who played Christus on five occasions, since 2015, which was the last time the play showed in Durban.

The play’s sequence of occurrence has also been altered in the past.

He said the 2010 show happened a year later because FIFA, football’s controlling body, would not relent with their jurisdiction policies during the staging of their World Cup event in the country.

Sandiah recalled how after their 1997 production, they were back in action in the year 2000 to celebrate the millennium.

Even though he’s not a trained actor, Sandiah said he had a “flair for theatre”.

“I am comfortable with being in front of large audiences.”

Preparation for this latest season of the play began with auditions in August and rehearsals a month later.

In spite of his long-standing association with the production, Sandiah said there were never any guarantees when it came to roles.

“It’s not a shoo in for roles. There might be others better suited for a role I’m eyeing. It depends on the directors.”

He said he prefers to play Caiphas of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high council) but the directors Dawn Haynes and Jessica Wardle don’t see it that way.

Dale Collings (Jesus), washing the feet of his disciples. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya

About betraying Jesus once everyday from April 6 to the 16th and twice on the weekends (show times) for 30 pieces of silver, he said: “It’s a difficult role to play when you understand the bible”

Sandiah said it played havoc with his emotions.

“It’s worse to play Judas in the 3pm show on Friday because it is a Good Friday.”

Regardless of his role as a villain, Sandiah said he felt fulfilled.

“Your fulfilment is guaranteed because you are doing this to the glory of God and each of us will be blessed.

“Our aim is to touch at least one person’s life with this production. That will make our efforts worthwhile.”

Crowds welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday”. Picture: Supplied

Sandiah said they met for practice every Sunday, for four hours, until the production began, and not a cent was paid to anyone.

The youngest participant was 2 and the oldest 86.

Jesus’ (Dale Collings) triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Picture: Mervyn Naidoo

“It is an absolute sacrifice from everyone and we have people from various denominations of Christianity, even people of other faiths got involved at times.”

He said audiences watching the play would feel as if they were actually in Jerusalem.

“The audience gets very involved. You hear the oohs and aahs especially in the scene where the soldier drives the spear into the side of Jesus and the blood gushes, as he hangs on the cross.”

As treasurer of the Guild, Sandiah said all the money generated from ticket sales and sponsorships went towards expenses like hiring the Playhouse, including its sound and lighting crew.

“It is about the best venue in Durban, and it comes at a cost. We have to pay for the storage of our props and costumes and we have to hire security, money has to be saved for the next production and we also make a donation to charity.”

Sandiah said they lost lots of money when the 2020 show was cancelled.

“It was a Sunday when we finished our final rehearsal in 2020 and ready to go when on the same night the lockdown restrictions were announced.”

Murray Leyden who plays Pontius Pilate washes his hands with his soldiers in close attendance. Picture: Nancy Lynne Brider

Murray Leyden, who turned 70 last week, plays Pontius Pilate, the senior Roman official in Jerusalem at the time.

He’s having a third go at the role having joined in 2011.

“I feel I’m quite suited to the role in terms of temperament, personality and voice. I try to be myself when on stage.

“I get excited being in front of an audience. The whole experience has given my life an added dimension. It is a phenomenal experience.”

Having played the role many times over past productions, Leyden, the son of Jock, a well known Daily News and Sunday Tribune cartoonist, said his approach was to believe that he was in Jerusalem and he was Pilate.

“I have had a few experiences when I would come off stage absolutely shattered and thinking, have I just done that (authorised the Christus’ crucifixion).”

Leyden said when he first auditioned for a role, it was for Pilate only, and Haynes, who approached him about getting involved also had the same character in mind for him, considering his strong voice.

While his father died in February 2000, well before he considered the play, Leyden said it would have been “nice for him to see me in action.”

“It would have been a great thrill. I accompanied him to many plays in the past where he would do drawings. But I never sat there thinking, I’d like to say to him, one day I'm going to be on stage.”