On the 17th and 18th of February, the ‘Mark Drama’ was performed for students by the University of Portsmouth’s Christian Union. This marked the first time it has come to this institution, and if it is to be put on again at some point, then future performances will have a hard act to follow.
Directed on this occasion by Andrew Page, who has extensive experience with the play having previously directed over 95 other renditions of it, the Mark Drama tells the story of Mark’s Gospel, detailing the key moments in Jesus’ ministry leading up to his eventual crucifixion. This included numerous miracles, the selection of the disciples, and heartfelt moments where we saw the more human side of Christ as he cried out to His Father in prayer. We were also ‘treated’ to a prolonged death scene which made the story’s climax seem all the more agonising.
Having such an experienced figure at the helm was crucial, and shone through in the overall quality of the piece. Taking on the role of Jesus was Aaron Stead, a second year student eager to prove himself as a future star. On the whole, aside from one example which I will detail further on, Stead does a great job in portraying Christ; a sinless man who spoke with authority but was no less human than the people He came to save.
Other members of the Christian Union provided the supporting cast, with important roles going to Fearghal Kelly as Simon Peter, Stephanie Yuen as Andrew, Juliano Saranga as John, and Sarah Taylor as James. Even director Andrew Page got in on the action, playing one of the Pharisees (a role he stepped into with unnerving natural ease) who could be heard murmuring at the side of the stage throughout the play, and hurling the occasional accusation at Jesus.
Special mention must also go to the additional roles. With the 90 minute performance covering a significant portion of Christ’s life, the parts where he made the most impact and met so many people, there was always going to be more roles than actors available. Therefore, every other actor involved in the piece stepped into the shoes of multiple smaller characters. This included Terence Lee, who made memorable impressions as the booming voice of God, and later as the intimidating figure of Herod, who is significant in bringing about Jesus’ final end.
The fact that the cast reportedly only had two full rehearsals in the lead-up makes this character-jumping seem all the more impressive, especially considering there were no major mistakes on the night. Any mistakes that did happen would have been easily covered up, as many of the roles seemed to improvise off of Jesus, who was rightly the focal point of the piece.
But the best decision of the performance was perhaps one that was made long before a line was spoken. This was the directorial decision to make it a ‘Theatre-in-the-round’ play. The audience felt like a character themselves due to the actors treating them as such; Jesus would look at all of us while teaching, characters who had just gotten healed would exclaim it to us as if we were the crowd they had just been part of. When Jesus and his disciples went on a journey, they would proceed out from the middle of the stage, through the audience and walk around them before coming back to the middle, which was now a new location. It made the Gospel story feel fresh and engaging, and the play would have lost much of its impact without this feature.
The performance was not perfect, though. There were occasions that would inevitably have caused slight confusion among those who were not already familiar with the finer details of Christ’s miracles. The feeding of the five thousand, for example, is closely followed by the feeding of the four thousand, which, despite reading as smaller in scale, was pretty much performed as a re-run of the same scene from before, complete with the same overenthusiastic reactions from actors clearly relishing the opportunity to improvise. This, among a couple of other late scenes that suffered from a similar sense of repetitiveness, perhaps would have been better left out. Doing that could also have helped alleviate my next criticism.
It may sound bad to say it, but the ending death screams and splutters of Jesus were prolonged almost to the point of awkwardness. This may indeed have been part of the overall point of it, to make us really remember what we’re watching, except that it’s not actually the death itself that proves the awkward part. What proves awkward is that Jesus is concentrating so much on coughing and panting at certain points that we struggle to hear what he’s saying in between. Realistic perhaps, but this was the point, more than any other, where I got the sense that subjective performance was in danger of overtaking the wider story.
That overenthusiastic acting I mentioned before is also something that can get on the nerves of certain audiences. Seemingly not the audience that was watching this one though; they all seemed to enjoy, rather than cringe at, those moments when certain actors appeared overexcited at the spectacle they were part of. Then again, considering the story and its meaning for many people, perhaps this reaction is entirely appropriate.
The University of Portsmouth’s C.U. has set a reasonably high standard here, and made me curious to see how other performances of this play measure up in comparison. Did they do the story of Mark’s Gospel justice in their enthusiastic and creative portrayal of it? I would say so. It wasn’t perfect, but no doubt they’d claim this only goes to show how man’s efforts will always fall short of God’s when it comes to telling this story.
8 / 10.