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Conversation with the man who will play Jesus on Good Friday

As well as taking the role in London's Trafalgar Square, James Burke-Dunsmore has played the part many times all over the world.

  • David Twiston-Davies
  • United Kingdom
  • March 25, 2013
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Strangers often come up to actor James Burke-Dunsmore with a bottle of water, asking him to turn it into wine. It is something he has grown used to during the 16 years he has been playing Jesus Christ in 57 separate productions.

“I’m flattered,” he says. “This is a sign in a supposedly indifferent or hostile age that people are interested.”

The trial, crucifixion and resurrection of an obscure carpenter one long weekend 2,000 years ago has been relived in solemn church services ever since Christianity came to Britain. Outdoor re-enactments by laymen were a popular feature of the medieval church until suppressed at the Reformation. However, Passion plays have been creeping back in recent years, perhaps, as the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once said, because people are looking for God anywhere except in church.

This Easter, at least 15 performances are being planned by amateur groups around the country. They will draw their casts from volunteers with widely different backgrounds: members of local churches, Christmas-only churchgoers, even people uncertain about exactly who Jesus was.

Yet even those who claim to be totally ignorant of Christianity have some measure of curiosity. One production recently had Muslims playing disciples, and another featured Copts who showed some Baptists the proper respect due to a rabbi.

The production that will attract most attention this year will be Burke-Dunsmore’s two performances in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday.

He will arrive on a donkey, and perform with another 78 players mingling with the audience until Jesus and the two thieves are crucified, usually in awed silence. An audience of more than 20,000 is expected this year, and the performance will be simultaneously shown on the website, wintershall-live.com, created for Peter Hutley, who pioneered modern Passion plays at his home, Wintershall, in Surrey.

The following day, James will perform it twice in Guildford High Street; and on Easter Sunday, he will watch the production he has directed at St Peter’s Church in Brighton.

Two things strike me when I meet James. One is that his story may not be the stuff of tabloid headlines, but it is unspectacularly, unthreateningly Christian. Brought up in the London suburb of Chislehurst, he became fascinated with art at an Anglican church school, then studied scientific illustration at Middlesex University.

“It was while living in a student dormitory that I became involved in an argument with a friend about religion,” he recalls. “I was fiercely opposed, and determined not to allow myself to lose.”

Neither could he claim victory. “But afterwards I was aware of how deeply ingrained Christianity is in this country. And when I ran out of all the arguments against, the teaching had got into my bones.

“Five years later I was with a theatrical group in Wales when I was asked to play Jesus for the first time, and on being asked to direct another production later, I realised that my knowledge of design had given me an invaluable instinct for stagecraft.”

Since then he has written and edited 32 scripts based on the four Gospels, particularly that of St John. He gives some 40 talks a year to schools, in which he emphasises the importance of pupils feeling, not just studying, the words; and he has taken productions to Scotland, Australia and Kenya, where a small group studying elephants formed a circle that became both cast and audience.

The other striking thing about James is his distinct resemblance to the Christ portrayed by the great religious painters, in those large works to be found in churches and museums, and on those small cards designed to be slipped into prayer books. Tall and slim, with dark hair falling down his back, he is 41. But, with an energy that enables him to bound around with impressive agility, he looks 33, Jesus’s age at the time of his death. His clear voice and gently penetrating eyes exude a genuine interest in those with whom he is speaking, though there is just a hint that latent anger can be summoned, as when Jesus turns over the moneylenders’ tables in the Temple.

One consequence is that he is often the first choice for casting directors looking for a Jesus. He has played the role on both radio and television. In the autumn he will be in a film made in South Africa, The Perfect Wave, about a surfer who encountered Jesus while declared medically dead for 20 minutes after being stung by lethal box jellyfish off Mauritius.

On starting rehearsals around the beginning of Lent, James knows that, although he is a professional, most of the cast will never have acted before.

“So at first I listen to them talking about themselves, watching to see how their experiences point them to roles; a soldier as a centurion, a mother who lost a baby as Mary. 'Don’t try to impress me or copy somebody else’s experience,’ I tell them. 'I am not looking for polished performances. I want to know how you feel.’

“When questions come up in rehearsals, I encourage players to go back to the Scriptures and delve deeper, though those who play Judas have a special problem. They want to know how he could betray a rabbi. It is not explained. But the play’s well-judged pauses bring home our capacity for betrayal, especially if 30 pieces of silver are at stake.”

To ensure that he will never become jaded, James weaves his own crown of thorns out of twigs for each new production. Every performance, he finds, can take on a mood of its own – a feeling of fear, of inevitability, an all-embracing guilt; but sometimes also a bouncy determination. There was the time a crowd laughed at Thomas’s astonishment that he could touch the holes on Jesus’s body, and another when James emerged from the tomb to cheering.

And he has his own surprises. A familiar line of scripture can suddenly take on new meaning, bringing on a gush of emotion or just a memory, as when the woman caught in adultery set off a ripple among the cast because James had asked the players to think about unfaithfulness. When a man helping him on to the Cross struck his leg with a hammer, and fractured his leg, James cried out in real pain, which the audience thought was part of the plot. He then had to find it in himself to shout “Father, forgive them…” and really mean it.

Full Story: James Burke-Dunsmore, the actor who weaves his own thorny crown 

Source: The Telegraph

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