The Life of Christ
Shaun Growney tells how Peter Hutley came up with the idea of presenting the Life of Christ and other plays as open air theatre at Wintershall, the country estate in the heart of Surrey, where he lives with his family.
If you are one of the 150,000 who have been to The Life of Christ or other plays at Wintershall, you will know that it is a magnificent and spiritually uplifting visit. In The Life of Christ particularly, in Winteshalls undulating hills, across its lake and in its woodlands you do much more than see a theatrical presentation of the story of Jesus, you become a part of it, part of the crowds that followed him, eager to see him, to hear him and to be be healed by him.
depth of prayer brought about a change
Peter Hutley, who wrote the plays, is the owner of the Wintershall estate and lives there with his wife Ann and their family. He was drawn to the idea of telling the Christian story in this post Christian world, through theatre, after a formative time spent at Medjugorje in 1989. Before then, God had been present to him in flashes which came and went. Then at Medjugorje, as he spent some time there alone and helping Fr Jozo with a parish problem, gradually, as if by osmosis (no dramatic road to Damascus conversion for him!), he came to realise that God was not the series of transitory flashes he had known, but was real and permanent. As Peter himself puts is, The depth of prayer that I discovered, and saw the Franciscans practicing, was bringing about a change in me. The daily Eucharist, the hours of silent adoration, the jollity and naturalness of daily living with the Friars, brought about a conversion in me.
Back home he still had to face the crises, dramas, and inexplicable frustrations of life and deal for the third time with terrible financial problems. But somehow he became calmer about it all through the grace of Medjugorje. Despite the permanent scars, he says, I was never depressed or worried that it would all come tumbling down. It didnt, and I floated over and above the perplexities and harshness. I believe that the Holy Spirit had rescued me.
In this state of grace, he wrote a Nativity play for performance at Christmas. This was presented to the public from local villages and to invited friends. It was the beginning of a spiritual enterprise that was to grow and develop vastly over the following years, for he was also inspired by the letter of Saint James: How does it help, my brothers, when someone who has never done a single good act claims to have faith? Will that faith bring salvation? (2.14) and As a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without deeds (2.26).
vision of plays as a means of evangelisation
This led led him to the vision of presenting plays as a means of evangelisation. In 1994 he added the Passion to the Wintershall repertoire for the Easter season. This was later expanded into the Life of Christ telling the story of Jesus from the Annunciation to the Ascension as a response to Pope John Paul IIs exhortation in 1998 to prepare for the Millenium. The result is that today The Life of Christ is in the tenth year of its annual six day run. The Wintershall Nativity still runs every Christmas and a new play depicting Christian life after the resurrection, The Acts of the Apostles was presented at Wintershall for a third consecultive year in 2007.
becomes a catholic in 1995
Peter became a catholic in 1995 some six years after his conversion at Medjugorje. It was such a tremendous wrench to leave the Anglican parish I had belonged to for so long. He explains, but I have no regrets. Yet still, he was at pains to point out that we are all Christians, whether Catholic or Anglican (or indeed, members of other Christian denominations) and the plays, being biblically faithful, are for all Christians of any denomination. They are also for those who want to know about Jesus, whether Christian or not. The underlying goal is conversion, to bring souls to Christ.
Every year Peter writes new scenes to the plays and in 2005 completely rewrote Act II of The Life of Christ including a scene with Jesus preaching to the stage crowd and the audience from a boat pushed out from the shore of the lake. Also, the length of the play is now 5 hours plus intervals. Formerly it was rather longer. However the script has always remained true to the gospel stories as told by St Matthew and St Luke. The play is presented in June each year when good weather, whilst not guaranteeed, might reasonably be hoped for. So, during the action, when the audience promenade from scene to scene in the open air, they are usually blessed with dry and sunny weather, although on one occasion it rained from 9.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. Nevertheless, the soaked audience insisted on the performance continuing right through to the end! The cast of more than 200 were also more than willing and were none the worse for wear despite the drenching, when they all arrived for the following days performance. The play uses real animals, donkeys, camels, sheep, lambs and horses, which add to the audiences sense of being part of the crowd which followed Jesus in his day. Peter explains, I strive, with the strength the Holy Spirit has given me, to make settings, drama and message as realistic as possible and ask the audience to imagine that they are present in every scene, that they can smell the camels and horses, see the dust and the beauty of costumes, and put themselves next to Jesus. His aim is to leave the audience with an indelible lasting impression of the message Jesus gave us and bring those who, perhaps unconsciously, come wanting to know more, hungry for God.
over 700 separate costumes
Over the years, 18 different babies have taken the part of baby Jesus, six of them Peters own grandchildren. The massively demanding and soul cleansing part of the adult Jesus is played today by James Burke-Dunsmore, the fourth professional actor to take on the role. He must remain in character for four hours at each performance and must reach out to some 3000 in the audience. There are over 700 separate costumes including Roman armour of the 12th legion, provided by Pauline Hallesy and her team of dressers. The director is Ashley Herman who Peter describes as brilliant and dedicated.
The Wintershall Nativity play has also undergone some changes over the years. The following is an extract from the ending spoken, in alternate paragraphs, by three actors playing the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. They provide a departing message to the audience as they go out to face the commercial Christmas in which all of us are now forced to take part.
The divinity of stars and angels
The elegant three, in the spotlight with dazzling long white wings represent the classical concept of how our Lords angels might appear. They inspire both children and adults alike. Similarly, in the course of the play, the equally traditional Magi, Shepherds, and Herod and his soldiers coming to kill all the children, provide the biblical core of the play both inside and outside the barn - theatre, with sheep, new born lambs, horses and calves. We also see Mary on a real donkey with Joseph, trudging exhausted across the side of a hill through sheep and audience to the interior of the theatre which becomes the Inn.
As Gabriel appears to the shepherds in the trees, bonfires burst into flames and a star appears in the heavens. The shepherds call upon everyone to follow the star, the star that leads all who believe, to our Lord.
The true story of Christmas becomes impressed on all our minds as the play unfolds and leaves the lasting memory that is implanted in all the plays, that Jesus is God made man who died for our sins and rose again to give new life to us all.