WINTERSHALL, England — Many people have heard of the famous Oberammergau Passion play performed every 10 years in Germany. But few are aware that thousands flock each year to an English country estate to see the life of Christ acted out in the open air.
The Wintershall Estate in the county of Surrey, about 30 miles south of London, is made up of 1,000 acres of rolling green farmland. On first impression, it looks no different from many other large farms. But when you drive through it you notice there are Stations of the Cross spread out over half a mile, two small chapels and a Rosary Way.
For the Wintershall Estate is the home of Peter Hutley, an imaginative and passionate English Catholic convert. But to really understand what he is trying to do, you have to visit the estate in June, when a 200-strong cast acts out the five-and-a-half-hour-long “The Life of Christ” in the open air.
Last year, 15,000 people showed up during the six days of production to witness the play.
A property developer by profession, Hutley first got involved in religious drama when he staged a small production of the Nativity on the estate in 1990.
“In 1994, I thought we ought to do the Passion at Easter,” he said. “We did it at Easter for a number of years with a cast of 50 or 60 and it drew audiences of between 1,200 and 1,500. It seemed to be something they wanted. But the play was difficult to put on at Easter because we frequently had very bad weather. The poor men on the crosses nearly got hypothermia.”
“In 1998, I read somewhere that the Pope had said 1999 had to be the year of preparation for the millennium,” Hutley continued. “And it flashed into my mind that there would be no better celebration for the millennium than to put on the life of Christ. There was a lot of debate at the time in England about street parties, and there was also the Dome being built in London. But without Christ there would be no millennium and no celebrations. I felt Christ was the only thing to be primarily celebrated.”
So Hutley wrote a three-act play based on the life of Christ, which was first performed on the estate in 1999.
The play begins with the Nativity and ends with the Ascension. The grounds of Hutley's estate contain representations of places such as the inn in Bethlehem, Lazarus' tomb and the Temple in Jerusalem. A lake acts as the river Jordan and the Sea of Galilee.
The audience moves with the action while a professional public-address system using 60 loudspeakers and 16 radio microphones mixes the spoken word with evocative music.
“When I start the play I say to the audience that I want them to imagine they were in Palestine 2,000 years ago, and I ask them to listen carefully to the words of Jesus,” Hutley said. “The play is narrated by St. Luke, who comes on and says that he wrote the Gospel. He then takes the audience from one scene to another and fills in any gaps in the story.”
“I've borrowed bits from the Bible to suit our particular production,” he added. “So, for example, where Jesus comes into the Garden of Gethsemane, he talks about him being the vine and his Father being the gardener. He didn't actually say this in Gethsemane, but it doesn't matter. It fits very well.”
Kids play a prominent role in the biblical re-enactments.
“In the scene where Jesus says, ‘Let the little children come unto me,’ we place the children at one end of the field and Jesus at the other,” Hutley said. “Then the children come running across the set screaming, ‘Jesus! Jesus!’ It's the most wonderful moment in the play. And we have a number of children who perform a mime during the Sermon on the Mount.”
Brought up in the Church of England, Hutley became a Catholic in 1994. His conversion happened partly, he said, as a result of the faith he had witnessed among the priests and people he had met in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina where he first visited with his wife after she had converted to Catholicism.
“I'm one of those fortunate people who has always had a faith,” Hutley said. “I've always believed in a God, some great creator of the universe and mankind, and I used to go to church periodically.
“As I grew older, I went more frequently. Gradually, the realization of God became more prominent in my mind and I discovered that I was thinking about him more than when I was much younger. At Medjugorje I saw the greater depth of prayer, understanding and history of the Roman Catholic faith.”
Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton said the play is a very spiritual piece of drama.
“I saw most of it last year,” the bishop said. “It was astonishing — it really grips you. It's remarkably faithful to the Gospel and also very prayerful and deeply spiritual.”
“Before the Crucifixion everyone was applauding each scene, but after [that] it was just total silence,” Bishop Conry recalled. “I'm sure it would be a serious challenge to Oberammergau if more people knew about it.”
Greg Watts writes from London.