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'It Brings the Story to Life in a Different Way'

Thursday March 28 2024

The female cast of this year's Easter Play in Edinburgh, which tells the story from the perspective of the women, talk about how they found their characters. By Susan Mansfield.

If you go looking for women in the Gospels, you find them mainly on the margins. We know they were there, travelling with Jesus and the disciples. They were miraculously healed, witnessed the crucifixion, were the first to see the risen Christ. Yet few of them have left us their stories - or even their names.

This year’s Easter Play, performed in West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, on March 30, is Easter: The Women’s Story, a retelling of the events of the first Easter from the perspective of the women.

The play is the product of months of hard work by up to 100 people, including a community cast of 40 actors supported a professional director. It has been performed in Princes Street Gardens since 2005, in a new version each year, attracting audiences of hundreds of people.

Writer and director Suzanne Lofthus says: “There are women in the story of Easter, but they are at the edges. We know women were there along with the male disciples, but we’re not used to seeing them at the Last Supper or in the garden of Gethsemane. I wanted to see what the story looks like from their perspective.”

Central to this retelling are 11 women, some of whom are well known to us, like Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and others who are little more than footnotes: Peter’s wife, whose existence is known only because Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, the poor widow who put her coins in the temple offering, the Canaanite woman and the woman caught in adultery.

Suzanne worked with the actors to give them names and back stories. Three of the cast - Alison Parkinson, Anita France and Mike Frew - were mentored as writers and helped write sections of the drama.

Anita France, who plays Mary the mother of Jesus, says: “It’s a very powerful take on the story because the women were there but were not written about. The Bible says that Jesus and his disciples baptised people. Did they baptise women, or did they have some women disciples who baptised the women?

“We also have to remember that, in First Century terms, Jesus was shocking because he spoke to women outside his own family, which was not done in the culture of the day. He gave women the courtesy of treating them like human beings. This was revolutionary.”

She imagined her way into the character of Mary, starting with the handful of references to her in the Gospel stories. “We know she was very brave, and that she trusted God. The decision she made to say yes to God - probably when she was about 14 - could have ended up with her being stoned. We know she was at the foot of the cross with the other women, watching her son die an agonising death. I don’t know if I would have had the courage, but she did.

“After that you have to enter into the character, and any character is like an onion, you peel away one layer and there’s another underneath. I’ve portrayed her, I hope, as a compassionate woman, a woman with a sense of humour, sometimes a bit bossy, but loving and doing her best.”

Alison Parkinson had to imagine her way into the character of Claudia Procula, the wife of Pontius Pilate, with even less to go on. Pilate’s wife gets only the briefest of mentions in Matthew’s Gospel, warning her husband not to have anything to do with Jesus because of a dream she had.

Alison says: “We know almost nothing else. That gives us a lot of freedom to think what she might have been like and what her story might have been.

“I’ve imagined her as an educated woman, a thoughtful woman who is intrigued about what she hears from her servant about this man Jesus.

“We imagine that she has a conversation with him which leaves her with a lot of food for thought because Jesus treats her as an equal, while she sees herself as socially superior. When we get to the big scene where Jesus is on trial before Pilate, there is quite an intense scene between husband and wife.”

She said that exploring the story from the women’s perspective casts the familiar story in a fresh light. “It’s just so relevant for 50 per cent of the population to think about what it was like from the women’s point of view. It brings the story to life in a different way.”

Easter - The Women’s Story, will be performed on Saturday March 30 in West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, starting at 2pm. Free entry.

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