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THE DURBAN PASSION PLAY 2000 (article first published : 2000-04-2)

The Durban Catholic Players Guild present their 11th production of The Durban Passion Play in the Playhouse Drama from April 1 to 23. This moving spectacle performed every five years since 1952 was originally staged at the Durban City Hall when the late David Horner’s portrayal of the Christus became a legend. However, in 1997, the production was moved from the City Hall to the Playhouse, where the extensive technology of the Drama has considerably enhanced its visual impact.

And herein lies the problem facing this reviewer. Is The Durban Passion Play a religious experience or a theatrical presentation? With the Guild’s production team, cast and backstage helpers giving their time freely and the programme requesting that there be no applause during the performance, it is to be understood that the major emphasis is on religious experience.

However, since it is staged in a public theatre and audiences pay for tickets, it falls within the realm of theatre.

Either way, co-directors Dawn Haynes and Margaret Prior have done an impressive job co-ordinating a cast of over 200 and the crowd scenes are well disciplined in movement and action. Even the tiny tots perform their hearts out.

Derrick O’Toole (alternating with Robin Paul) gave a sensitive and committed portrayal of the Christus although in the final scenes he was difficult to hear. This is an extremely demanding part mentally, vocally and physically and he had already put in a performance earlier in the day.

Anita Lavoipierre gained sympathy as the Madonna and Michael Ribeiro’s Pontius Pilate was commanding and terse. As Judas, Dominic Sandiah gave a nice portrayal of the traitor who is strong in his conviction of being wronged until he realises that he has made an appalling mistake. Those playing the Sanhedrin priests gave controlled, consistent - and strongly audible – performances. Notable among these were Terry da Silva as Caiaphas, Sean Achim as Rabbi and Allan Booth as Joseph of Arimathea. Another good performance came from David Spiteri as Herod who taunts Jesus to produce a miracle – any miracle – before he shrugs him off and goes back to his dancing girls.

Glen Olsen’s lighting design was dramatic and well-conceived. Particularly memorable was the opening scene with lights twinkling in the buildings on the horizon as well as the Ascension scene when the full technical facilities of this well-equipped theatre came to the fore. All of 30 years ago, the late Maurice Hettena, a respected Durban musician, composed a new musical score for the Durban Passion Play and today this is still atmospheric and evocative. Rod Smith’s original set design also holds good, particularly the dramatic screen of thorns used for the Garden of Gethsemane.

The first half is seriously hampered by long scene changes. The script is so structured that as one scene closes, the next could easily be starting without losing any sense of dignity or propriety – the Last Supper is one such example. Also disciplined soldiers who aren’t always in step and a supposedly coal brazier with an obvious electric cable leading offstage can extract laughter when it’s least needed! It also seemed odd that while the freed thief Barrabas was firmly attached to his jailer, the two who were to be crucified with Jesus were walking freely, albeit with their hands tied.

But, despite occasional glitches and a creaky revolving stage, what is lacking in professional expertise in this production is made up for by total sincerity and commitment on behalf of everyone involved.

This year, the Christian faith celebrates 2 000 years since the birth of Christ. Through The Durban Passion Play, the Durban Catholic Players Passion Play continues to uphold its proud boast of being the only organisation in the world granted permission to base their script and costumes on those of the Bavarian Passion Play of Oberammergau.

Performances are Tuesday to Sunday at 19h00 with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 15h00. There are extra performances on Good Friday (April 21) at 10h00 and 15h00. Tickets range from R15 to R40 at Computicket. For block bookings call Mala on (031) 369 9448.

A major gripe – but this has nothing to do with the production – I do wish the Playhouse Company would not permit latecomers after a show has started. It’s insulting and distracting to both performers and members of the audience who have taken the trouble to arrive and be seated on time. However, I was delighted to observe an usher carrying out his power to confiscate an audience member’s cellphone when it rang.




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