A test of faith: crowds flock to see 'Jesus of Trafalgar'

Cahal Milmo braves wintry weather to see the Crucifixion re-enacted in London

Jesus shivered and prayed for deliverance as a bone-chilling wind whipped around Trafalgar Square this lunchtime. Close by, an actor playing his namesake was about to be crucified in front of Nelson's Column – but this Jesus, a Spanish engineer visiting London, could bear it no longer.

Pulling his woolly hat tighter over his head, Jesus Ramirez, 46, from Seville, said: "I think it's a rather wonderful thing to do a play, but Christ was put to death in Jerusalem. It should be about 20 degrees warmer. I'm going to have to buy a coffee and come back for the ending."

Fortunately for organisers of what was probably Britain's most dramatic Good Friday re-enactment of The Passion, other spectators were made of sterner stuff. An audience of 5,000 packed the square to watch the performance by 75 actors, a dozen pigeons, three horses and a suitably thick-coated donkey.

With only 5 per cent of British Christians intending to attend church services this Easter, according to a YouGov poll, and barely one in four expecting to go tomorrow, this was a chance for organised religion to bring its show to the masses, even if it did include a large contingent of bemused tourists shuffling between Big Ben and the National Gallery. A further 30 per cent of Christians do not even believe the most important element of Easter is its religious significance.

The Passion of Jesus – a collaboration between the Bible Society and the Wintershall Trust, a Christian theatre troupe from Bramley, Surrey – therefore had its work cut out in holding the attention of the ambulant, occasionally ambivalent, crowd of passers-by surrounding a seated audience in the the square. That it did so over two two-hour performances, with a little help from radio microphones, an impressively loud public-address system and video cameras streaming the action to a giant screen, was in no small part due to James Burke-Dunsmore.He is presumably one of the few actors in Britain who can say he has spent the past 15 years "Jesus-ready".

The 41-year-old "Jesus of Trafalgar", the only paid member of the cast, has carved out something of a niche as a professional Christ, totting up nearly 60 separate productions in recent years. He sports a permanent mane of curly long hair, bushy beard and, when the occasion requires, a loincloth.

But there can have been few performances where Burke-Dunsmore's zeal to play his role with beatific grace can have been more sorely tested.

Today, he spent 50 minutes recreating the "Road to Calvary" up the steps of the National Gallery, before being hoisted into the easterly wind with only his loincloth and some stage blood between him and the coldest Good Friday in years. With a candid admission that his sentiments risked invoking nausea, he said: "It's the love that generates the warmth. You can't get cold when you're celebrating something joyful."

Other cast members, dressed in little more than grown-up versions of the costumes in which countless children are sent out to perform the Nativity, could have been forgiven if they had secreted hot water bottles within their folds of rustic muslin to bolster their faith and protect themselves against the elements.

Notwithstanding the inclement conditions, cast members and organisers alike insisted the exercise was worthwhile. There was little ground for criticising the effort of a production so well prepared for all eventualities that it brought its own pigeons.

Matthew van Duyvenbode, the head of advocacy for the Bible Society, said afterwards: "This is a really good way of reminding people who have perhaps forgotten about Easter what its meaning is."

Others begged to differ. Sarah Dunwoody, 34, from Clapton, east London, said: "It feels a bit incongruous to me. Trafalgar Square is built to glorify war and violence. I would have much preferred it to have been outside St Paul's Cathedral. This is a bit close to forcing religion down people's throats for my liking."

The YouGov survey found that just under half of British Christians believe spending time with friends and family is the most significant part of Easter. But for those gathered in Trafalgar Square at least, there were different priorities.

Joshua Adeyemi, 25, from Clapham, south London, said: "What do you want when you come out for a day in the West End? Great entertainment. You don't get more dramatic than watching a guy sacrificing himself horrifically for what he believed in. We might all know the story but it's a good one."

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