Man on a mission to bring Jesus to London
By Pia Harold, BBC News
• Why would a man bring a 2,000-year-old story, 107 actors, three crosses, two horses and a donkey, to the centre of London at a cost of more than £50,000?
It’s an operation that would be a logistical nightmare to even the most experienced and ambitious theatre impresario. This Good Friday Trafalgar Square in London will host a massive open-air performance of the Passion of Jesus.
The protagonist will burst out between the famous huge bronze lions for a triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. He will perform healings along the capital’s roadside then be crucified against Nelson’s Column, before resurrecting at the end of the play.
The Passion of Jesus tells the story of the last week of Jesus’s life, concentrating on what Christians see as his ultimate sacrifice for mankind. It’s an Easter staple, but seldom has it been performed on such a grand scale as this.
But that is what businessman Peter Hutley, who is producing the event, is attempting. He is no stranger to putting on Christian plays, having done so at his country estate in Wintershall, near Guildford, since the late 1980s.
This time he is hiring coaches and lorries to take the cast and scenery to London. Teams were due to start erecting microphones at 4am on the Friday and work was due to continue all morning.
But what leads a man to bring such a project to the epicentre of bustling London? Mr Hutley says he and his family were enlightened in 1988 when they visited Medjugorje in Bosnia, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared before six children.
It was “like osmosis through my skin and into my heart”, he says. “I had the deep feeling of the presence of God and I knew of the great wonders and joy of having faith. And all my misapprehensions faded away.”
When Mr Hutley first tried to get people involved in his plays (he began with a Nativity), they thought it was a joke. His first production just involved family members in a barn, with an audience of 50.
But the self-made millionaire , who has run a number of successful businesses down the years, persevered and now his plays regularly draw crowds of 3,000.
The entire cast for the Trafalgar Square performance – except for Jesus – is made up of amateurs. It includes both his daughters and one son. He fund the productions himself and through donations. People are often surprised how professional the productions are.
“People think when they come to my play that there are going to be lots of little girls with fancy wings stuck on their back, flitting around and giggling,” he says.
The plays follow the words of the Bible as closely as possible. By staying true to that story it retains a power to move people, he says.
Even non-Christians can find the theme of the Passion – sacrifice, death, resurrection – deeply stirring. One scene in particular captures people, says Mr Hutley.
Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him and three times Peter says yes. Then the cock crows, because Peter did deny him once. He is forgiven and Jesus turns to the audiences and says: “Be bold, love my Church.”
“There’s not a dry eye. On time I was standing by this tall man… and he was crying his eyes out. A man of 60 or so.”
While Friday’s audience will no doubt draw a mixed crowd, Mr Hutley has taken Christian plays at a variety of venues including Lewes Prison, Lockie Head, the University of Wales, and the main shopping thoroughfare in Guildford, Surrey.
But it doesn’t always meet with universal approval. Hilary Grey performed in some of the earlier productions on Guildford High Street.
“Occasionally you’d get people grabbing their children away from it,” she says. “And occasionally you get people saying ‘why do they have to do this on a Saturday when all the shoppers are around in the High Street?’. It was holy Saturday – we always do it then.”
So why bring the play to one of London’s largest urban spaces? The animals have to be inspected by a vet, there are security concerns, and it will cost an estimated £50,000?
He describes it as an invitation to people to know Christ personally, and to educate.
“We believe that you can’t be a good Christian unless you know about Christ… and we want to provide an opportunity for people to know.
“I’m wanting to get every town, city and village in the country to perform these plays because they have such an impact. I will go on putting them on until I can’t do it any more. There’s no limit.”
But in 21st Century Britain, where Christians rub shoulders with those of many other faiths, and non-believers, how does he think the public react?
“It will be dramatic, exciting, good theatre, it’s better than looking at television or going to the films,” he says. “It’s a live performance in a very unusual place. It’s a day out with the children, it’s a natural landmark for people who are curious. If they don’t like it, they can walk away.”
So does pride play a part in his motivation?
“I fight it off,” he says. “I’m not particularly egotistical. If you’re doing this job, all pride and personal satisfaction disappears.”
For him it is about encouraging people to lead better lives.
“If we could all be good Christians and live the story, the message of Christianity, it would be such a wonderful world,” he says.
• The Passion of Jesus will be performed at 3.15pm in Trafalgar Square on 2 April. For more information about Peter Hutley’s productions, visit the Wintershall website