The Chester Mystery Plays 2008

Chester Mystery Plays Limited
Chester Cathedral Green

The Crucifixion

Being a founder member of the Chester Mystery Plays Company, having led local Guildsmen on pageant wagons through the city streets and witnessed two spectacular performances at Oberammergau, I can surely testify with some confidence that the current revival on Chester Cathedral Green is awesome.

The cast is enormous - approaching three hundred, plus twenty dancers and three score children in various roles, many of them playing animals. And I must not overlook, as somebody nearly did, Lucius the donkey. Where would the Nativity be without the donkey?

The evolution of the dramatic medieval kingdom almost defies simple explanation. Much earthly and political life has clearly passed, with those old 14th Century carts, over the Sands o' Dee and the streets from Abbey Gate to Pentice Cross.

Modern times and staging techniques have transformed the pageant, even since Christopher Ede directed the first modern revival in the Cathedral Refectory to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951. Ede it was who later brought the plays out into the light of the Cathedral Green where with one exception, they have remained. Let it be said, too, lest others remind me, that Ede also brought the plays into the rain. Should we doubt it, even Wimbledon does not always prosper in the sun - so why should the Bible?

It is, of course, Peter Dornford May, a great director of the crowd, who will also be remembered as much for downpours and rather wet costumes as for his thrilling dramatic spectacles and sparkling gala nights with HRH Princess Margaret. Today's director, Robin Goddard, Lucifer in those nostalgic '70s, handles his great cast with equally as much skill. "These are no mere relics," he points out, "but a vehicle of instruction." And his interpretation clearly seeks to give a medieval tutorial, visual relevance to 21st century players and audience. And the director is firmly on course in the first of the two performances, The Prophecy, unfolding the Old Testament legends from Creation to The Purification.

God, this time in the powerful voice of Duncan Crompton, booms, clearly across the fading sward. That opening announcement: Ego sum Alpha et Omega (from the McCullock text if I recall it correctly) still catches the throat down the years.

Here, Lucifer is in the remarkable hands of the young Paul Dabek, a professional magician who moves, Will o' the Wisp-like, through the proceedings, aided by the likeable singing Gabriel of David Edwards, as the story unfolds with the help of Harry Kingham's amiable Gobbet - replacing the traditional jester of the early Chester plays.

Noah's Flood, the old Water Leaders of Dee play, is brought colourfully to life with a splendidly coarse Mrs Noah in Jennifer Jackson and an excellent Noah from Gavin Cross who is vocally a dead ringer for Bernard Cribbins!

The Shepherds Play, originally by the Painters, Glaziers and Embroiderers, is another highlight. Now in a new vernacular led by Vaughan Hughes as Hankyn, the quartet sings with musical Welsh accents and prompts a roar of laughter from the audience with their tribute to Katharine Jenkins! Whether this joke would have pleased ancient audiences is another matter since, in those days, any Welshman found within the City Walls would have been arrested and flogged. Full marks to Sian Phillips, a seamless replacement for Ruth Roberts who was indisposed. Yet the liberty wins many friends among visitors, local shopkeepers and those associated with Chester's choral traditions.

And it prompts more inspirational Gilbert & Sullivan scoring from composer and musical director, Mat Baker, whose original work throughout this production lifts proceedings to a scale above the customary literal. In particular, Baker produces a brilliant setting of Nunc Dimittis for Douglas Cashin's aged Simeon as he receives the Infant at The Temple.

Part Two, The Fulfilment, opens immediately on a distinctly vibrant note with the drama of the Woman Taken in Adultery (Butchers) and even the Raising of Lazarus (Glovers & Parchment Makers) maintains the tension as the very gentle Jesus of Sid Moyfa is seen to be stirring strident voices amongst the establishment.

This second part, I have to say, deviates from the first in that the plays are allowed to run almost as a single piece, not quite what the medieval scholars intended with their episodic formula.

I fancy an effort to avoid traditional sentimentality in The Last Supper (Grocers, Bakers, Millers), albeit this means forfeiting the warmth one often associates with this famous scene. It means also the loss of the great anticipation of the Holy Communion of today's Eucharist.

However, The Trial, with a strong performance by Jeremy Grange as Pilate, well-matched by Will Wood (Caiaphas) and David Anjo (Annas), moves apace with the large company in mounting uproar.

The Crucifixion (Ironmongers, Ropers) is almost too difficult to watch, partly through its physical immediacy. Even Oberammergau, with all its massive power, is never quite like this. And the speech by Sarah Fairchild's Mary Magdalene will be added to the great memories of this mystery cycle. Looking down the years, I sometimes wonder why our civic forbears attempted The Resurrection and Ascension. What, dramatically speaking, on earth can follow that?

And, much as I marvel at this superb achievement in an old walled city, I longed for a little more shape and style in that vast chorus as they sang their modern praises in medieval garb.

The Antichrist is a striking performance by Mary Lewery, pivoting upside down on the cross followed by God's final appearance in The Last Judgment, strangely in wheelchair.

Judith Croft's design is brilliant in form, style and function, releasing the most of the myriad talents on display here. The setting is well complimented by the lighting of Nick Richings who bathes the sandstone of the famous Cathedral in rich colours appropriately associated with the action as The Fulfilment reaches its conclusion.

As I approached the city beneath a darkened sky, I reflected that God can seem strangely unsympathetic to these earthly manifestations of his scriptures, especially when performed by mere mortals seeking to create a worthy spectacle in a holy, cathedral setting.

Yet usually, in the space of seven days or more, he relents at some point and allows the hopeful symbol of the plays, a brilliant smiling sun, to shine forth in all its glory - which is the least that this excellent production, the most spectacular in modern times, deserves . So, thank God, it was today.

The 2008 Cycle of Chester Mystery Plays ends on Saturday 19th July. A performed concert version can be seen in Liverpool (Anglican) Cathedral on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th October 2008. Tickets are available now from Chester and Liverpool Cathedrals.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole

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