Thirty years on from the first staged play of The Passion of Jesus, Tola-Doll Fisher spoke with Charlotte de Klee, trustee and producer of Wintershall, the world-famous organisation responsible for staging award-winning productions that focus on the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus
Wintershall first featured in Woman Alive back in 2019, before my time as editor. In that interview, your mother Ann said that when she and your father Peter first decided to put on a nativity play in the grounds of your home, Wintershall – a 13th-century house in a 1,000-acre estate, in the heart of the Surrey – they had no idea it would become a world-famous production. What was it like growing up in that environment?
Well I was an adult when it all started. It was mum and me who became Christians first – I was in my 30s and living in London at the time. Mum suffered from depression but she was healed of it when we visited Medjugorje in what was then Yugoslavia. We’d never come across the Virgin Mary and it’s a place where the Virgin Mary is appearing regularly.
It sounds barking mad, and I certainly have never seen her, but there is definitely something there that is evidence of the veil between heaven and earth being very thin. Dad was a highly successful businessman so, when the penny dropped for him when he was about 68, he took that same drive into his faith.
His attitude was: I waited all this time; I must now tell everybody! He was constantly looking for ways to do that and with the plays, he wanted to do it properly, even without any experience. He went from keeping a tight rein on the house to literally and metaphorically throwing open the doors to invite everybody in to watch these plays about Jesus! Growing up I was a bit scared of him but he’s 96 now, and we have a good relationship.
What divides us is nonsense, really, because there is the same Jesus in every church
It sounds as though your mum might have needed something in her life to change and your dad channelled his work ethic into his newfound faith, but what about you?
I was probably 32 when I first went to Medjugorje, and my life was good. I had a nice house in Notting Hill and two children, so it wasn’t about looking for a crutch. But I had lived with a wonderful Buddhist lady for a long time and deep down I must have been looking for the reason for life.
You had your own life when this was all taking off at Wintershall down in Surrey, so how did you get involved?
Well I was reluctant to go back, at first. The first play was of the Nativity, the next the Passion; both were staged at Wintershall and they were well attended, but they were expensive. I told dad I would help raise money for the plays because, by then, I’d really caught the vision. In 2010 we took the Passion to London and it was wonderful. We had support from the mayor of London and churches across denominations.
The latter is particularly encouraging because despite our different traditions and ways of doing things, what unites us is Jesus. The current Mayor of London Saadiq Khan even said, “go and listen to the Christian story!” You don’t have to believe but it’s an important part of culture and history. We have around 20,000 people coming from all faiths and none. It hasn’t been easy; we have a cast of about 100 and the plays cost £100,000 to put on each year. Everything is done by hand, including building the sets.
I remember visiting one year with my non-churchgoing husband on a blazing hot April day and it was jam packed! What happened in 2020 when COVID hit?
What was so disappointing was that we’d got eight other towns and cities across the country who we were all going to do it at the same time. There were all these different Jesus’ with different accents, backgrounds and abilities. And we were going to do a big press release saying: “This is a story that’s going to be rolled out across the country, in your nearest town or city”…only thanks to COVID and lockdowns, it never happened. Instead, we did a little production and a film online and things like that.
We have a cast of about 100 and the plays cost £100,000 to put on
In 2021, we still couldn’t go and perform but we did get permission to put the cross up. And the Bishop of London and the Roman Catholic Cardinal went at 6am to do prayers under the cross in the square. We just wanted to keep the presence of Jesus alive in the square, even though we weren’t there.
What have you noticed about denominational differences when you’re putting on these plays with cast members from a variety of churches?
What divides us is nonsense, really, because there is the same Jesus in every church. We just do it in slightly different ways. There are many rooms in our Father’s house, so we don’t all have to cram into the same one! I feel like Easter is the one time that people can come together and just celebrate the reason for the season as it were. And that’s what’s so good about just telling the story. And I just think, with so many rural churches shutting and closing, the spiritual need is greater than ever before.
I had two Muslim ladies come up to me last year. One of them was very emotional, because she had just lost friends of friends in a car crash but recognised it as: “a story of hope”. The other was a lady who’d been married to a Muslim man. Her daughter was in her early 20s. She said: “I just wanted her to know my side of the story.” We’re not at all preaching; you don’t have to believe it. But so many people don’t know the story of Jesus. Above all, it’s a story of hope, because there’s resurrection.
I recently read Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz. In the book, he asks why one out of 28 people survived. They weren’t special; they just were hopeful.
So far, all the plays have been held outside, despite the often-unpredictable weather in the UK. Most faith-based plays take place inside a church or religious building. Is this intentional?
Yes! You read in the Bible about Jesus going away to the quiet place. When he was out in the countryside, as it were, he was totally fine. He only got into trouble when he was in the town. And so that’s why everything we do is outside, whether it’s raining, or sunny or whatever. It’s just important to be outside. That’s where people are and that’s where Jesus met with them.
Where can I watch The Passion this Easter?
The Passion of Jesus will be staged at Trafalgar Square on Good Friday, 7 April 2023 at 12pm and 3.15pm. Entry is free for all and will be livestreamed on Facebook.
Want to see The Passion where you are?
Contact the Wintershall team at email@example.com to find out how you can stage a Wintershall event in your town or city.
Find out more at: wintershall.org.uk