By Fiona Garrett

The centre of Derry-Londonderry came alive during Holy Week with mesmerising performances of Walled City Passion, a modern reimagining of the Easter story. Now in its second year, this immersive street theatre production – masterfully directed and written by Jonathan Burgess – captivated audiences with its exceptional cast and a harmonious blend of ancient and modern storytelling techniques.

This year, the creative team behind the Passion also introduced a fringe festival which explored themes related to conflict resolution, peacebuilding and community relations. 

During twice-daily performances of the drama, on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week, Stephen Bradley exuded serenity and depth in his breath-taking portrayal of Jesus, while Charlie Bonner’s ‘devilishly ordinary’ devil provided a relatable counterpoint. The impressive supporting cast included local star Dylan Reid as a cunning Judas and Andy Porter as Caiaphas. Margaret Hannon’s moving portrayal of the crippled woman who received the gift of walking from Jesus left some audience members in tears. Local performing arts students played a crucial role as extras, adding depth and authenticity to the performance.

The drama’s visual elements were equally impressive, notably Helen Quigley’s exceptional costume design and the use of striking props such as a crown of thorns and realistic stigmata makeup effects.

Walled City Passion is a stunning and unforgettable theatrical experience and, as the community embraces the drama, it is destined to become an eagerly anticipated annual event.

The ‘Passion + Fringe Festival’ offered a profoundly moving and thought-provoking experience for all who attended. Its first event, in St Augustine’s Church, delved into themes of peacebuilding, dialogue and the power of mediation in conflict resolution, with heartfelt contributions from Michael Doherty MBE and Brian Dougherty MBE. The former shared a chilling account of witnessing violence during the Bloody Sunday march, drawing connections to Jesus’s arrest and his message of non-violence. Brian Dougherty touched on the “Orwellian attitude” to politics in the region and the psychological impact of the siege mentality still present in some Londonderry communities. Smart leadership, hope, and building social capital were identified as core themes for the event.

The second session, held at the First Presbyterian Church, featured Bishop Andrew Forster, Rev Canon Judi McGaffin and writer Tony Macaulay. Their reflections on the Passion Play highlighted its emotional impact and the lessons it offered about fear, disappointment and the human capacity for redemption.

At the fringe festival’s third session, in Áras Cholmcille – St Columba Heritage Centre, a panel of distinguished trauma therapy professionals explored the human experience, focusing on trauma and healing. Prof. Derek Farrell MBE, Prof. Paul Miller, and university lecturer Lorraine Knibbs explored the importance of addressing trauma at both individual and societal levels, as well as the role of the Walled City Passion in facilitating conversations around this crucial topic.

Their discussion centred on the crucifixion scene from the passion play. The panellists emphasised the importance of not sanitising the brutality of trauma, and the need for open dialogue, professional support and community engagement in overcoming the lasting impacts of trauma.

The fringe festival’s concluding session, the Walled City Passion Symposium, provided an opportunity for attendees to meet and converse with writer/director Jonathan Burgess and Archdeacon Miller, who first conceived of Walled City Passion. 

Jonathan explained that what drove him as a producer was shining new light through old windows. “I like taking stories which people have expectations about and then burning them about and making them into something else.”

Archdeacon Miller explained that he had previously seen a Passion play in Manchester which had been inspired by the Manchester music scene. It inspired him to do something “like it but different”. He said the appeal of playing the new drama out on the famous city walls came from the fact that years ago the walls were regarded as a ‘no-go area’.

The ‘Passion + Fringe Festival’ was a truly enriching and inspiring experience for all who attended. The event offered a unique opportunity for participants to engage in meaningful conversations on topics such as peacebuilding, trauma, and the power of artistic expression in promoting healing and understanding.The event served as a potent reminder of the importance of hope, leadership and the power of human connection in overcoming conflict and building a more compassionate society.