Israel Oyelumade is used to playing inspirational characters, but his latest eclipses them all, as Warwick Payne discovers

HE has starred in London's West End and appeared in movie blockbusters, but Israel Oyelumade is now facing his most challenging role.

However, he will not be in the bright lights of Broadway or Hollywood, but the medieval streets of Winchester.

He will be playing Jesus Christ in the city's first Passion play since the 1970s.

The 2008 event promises to be larger than the previous one, with a cast of more than 300, and similar numbers of technicians and stewards.

Several landmarks, such as The Great Hall, Buttercross and Winchester Cathedral, will be pressed into service for the open-air spectacular.

Pyrotechnics, live music, and even armoured vehicles are expected to feature in the play, which will be performed with modern dialogue and costumes.

Churches around Winchester have raised more than £50,000 to stage the free show, and are hoping for thousands of visitors. They will be coming to watch the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, with Israel in the spotlight.

He is the only professional actor in the cast, with amateurs from Hampshire taking on the rest of the roles.

Israel, who lives in Hove, came upon the role by chance while playing anti-slavery campaigner Olouda Equiano, in African Snow.

At one of the shows in London last year, Philip Glassborow, artistic director of the Winchester Passion 2008, was in the audience.

Said Israel: "Philip saw me on stage in the West End, and unbeknown to me, he was working on this project in Winchester. Later on, he called to ask if I'd like the part. The same week, my wife and I found out we were having our second child, so it was a good week."

Having studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he has tackled stage, screen and television work.

It has included minor parts in two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, along with leading stage roles, such as playing the American Civil War slave, Sokoto, in King Cotton.

Now he is portraying Jesus, and, as a regular churchgoer, he says it will be the toughest challenge he has faced.

"Jesus is God in a man's body and that's all I can really play him as. The fact is that I'll be performing in a role that, to me, can never be any bigger."

The part promises not just to be emotionally taxing for Israel, but physically tough as well. He will have to carry a cross through central Winchester, and is spending plenty of time at the gym to boost his strength. For the crucifixion scene, he will be partially clad as Jesus was, but he might have to contend with near-freezing temperatures.

"The image of Christ on the cross is known around the world, so I can't really put on lots of winter clothes for it."

He added that he had walked around England's former capital to become familiar with the historic sights. "I think Winchester will lend itself to the Passion play really well."

Given the lighting, special effects and setting, Israel says the piece will have more in common with a big budget film than a theatre show. "They'll be doing it to the standard of a BBC production; the only difference is that it won't be going on film.

"It is going to be spectacular, with big screens, bright lights, and live music. It sounds like it will be absolutely fantastic."

The Winchester Passion 2008 begins at 6pm in Oram's Arbour on Good Friday, March 21. Visit for more details.