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DURBAN PASSION PLAY (article first published : 2005-03-6)

At this time of year, a number of normally clean-shaven people from all walks of life become unrecognisable with long hair and flowing beards. Then you remember – it’s time for The Durban Passion Play!

This impressive spectacle aimed at presenting witness to the greater glory of God has its roots in 1952 when it was first performed in Durban at the Greyville Race course. The visionary Fr Noel Coughlan travelled to Bavaria to gain approval for the Durban version of the play to be staged every five years in the city. The Oberammergau village fathers granted special permission to the Durban Catholic Players Guild to stage an abridged version of what was first enacted in 1634 in Oberammergau.

Some 53 years on, The Durban Passion Play has become entrenched in the Durban cultural calendar and is supported by a cast numbering over 150 who work for at least seven months of the year on a voluntary basis. Presented for this, its 12th season, and in association with the Playhouse Company for the second time, The Durban Passion Play makes full use of the beautiful Drama theatre and its impressive technical capacity.

The music used is still the score of the late Maurice Hettena written all of 35 years ago. Being a close friend of his, I remember him playing sequences to me for my opinion and how moving I thought it was then. It still is. Powerful and evocative, it provides underlying themes to the action.

Rod Smith’s original set design still works extremely well, the revolve stage incorporating scenes ranging from the Sanhedrin council, to Pilate’s court, Golgotha and the tomb. The visual experience was marred, however, by the use of an unacceptably un-stretched and torn screen. The rest of the production manages to lift audiences into a Biblical time-frame but, when not carrying images of rushing clouds or in darkness, this tatty piece of equipment broke the magic and brought them thundering back to reality.

And the familiar faces are still there: Frans Vera (Peter); Ronaldo da Silva (Thomas); Dave Allan (Phillip); Malcolm Stewart (Nicodemus); Dick Pope (Simon of Bethany); Melanie Wardle (Rebecca); Clifford Wardle (Azayear); Michael Lohr (Levi), and David Spiteri (Herod). Clifton Brock, consistently vociferous as the crowd leader, traces his involvement back as far as the 1973 production while Terry da Silva (an articulate and manipulative Caiaphas) has been in the play since 1978.

Playing the Christus at last night’s performance was Robin Paul who gave a compelling and sustained performance. Understudying the part is Joseph Couve de Murville who radiated a clear sincerity as John. Denise Rankin (alternating with Dawn Harrison) was a calm Mary; Malcolm Ayres a commanding Pilate; David Spiteri a suitably self-indulgent Herod and Dominic Sandiah who brought a poignant sense of despair to the role of Judas.

Co-directors Dawn Haynes and Margaret Prior have once again pulled off an extraordinary production which is emotional and true to the spirit of the production. The journey to Golgotha, the crucifixion scene and the descent from the Cross are very memorable. Mike Broderick’s lighting design is impressive, as always.

I revisited my review of the 2000 production and was interested to see that I wrote about an irritating moment when someone’s cell phone rang. Five years later, audience members are still not being careful enough and the infuriating tones of a cell phone rang during a particularly sensitive scene. All kudos to Robin Paul who remained focus and un-distracted, when I would probably have halted the production!

My other comment was that the “first half is seriously hampered by long scene changes” and this is still a problem. As one scene finishes, the next should be already in process – and this applies to both cast and technical crew.

The Durban Passion Play runs from March 5 to 27 with shows nightly (except Mondays) at 19h00 with extra performances on Saturday and Sundays (including the Easter weekend) at 15h00. On Good Friday there are performances at 10h00, 15h00 and 19h00.

Booking through Computicket on 083 915 8000, www.Computicket.com or through the Playhouse’s Dial-a-seat facility on 031-369 9555. – Caroline Smart




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