Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
The connection between the Wakefield Mystery Plays and The Mysteries, developed by director Sam Pritchard and author Chris Thorpe, is tangential rather than direct. The Mystery Plays invite audiences to consider their lives in the light of a religious story and the developers used the cycle as a rough guide for a trip around the UK that provided the basis for their collaboration.
The Mysteries is a series of six one-hour plays using local stories to encourage audiences to reflect on their towns and communities. Each of the plays is set in a specific town, is based upon stories drawn from the area and has been performed in community halls and centres in that town as a double bill with the play about Manchester. Today, and next Saturday, however, all six are performed in a marathon eight-hour run in the main house (rather than The Studio where the double bills are staged during the week) at the Royal Exchange Theatre.
It is an ambitious approach that makes demands on both the audience and the six members of the cast. The latter show the strain with the occasional fluffed line although in the final, and arguably the most demanding, part of the cycle they are word-perfect.
Director Sam Pritchard maintains the informality of the community-based performances despite the transfer to a formal theatre setting. The cycle is introduced by the author clearly chuffed at the high turn-out explaining the origins of the plays as being based upon conversations with local people and a reflection, rather than an impersonation, of the communities.
Informal features, as if the plays are being performed in a community centre or church hall, are retained on stage. A raffle is held, patrons are invited to meet Pigeon, the falcon, and a comedy rap duo and local bell ringers perform. Designer Rosie Elnile has devised an elegantly simple set comprising bare benches and a raised platform supplemented by props borrowed from sites in the specific areas—sheep shears, local vegetables and crockery. TV screens around the stage broadcast scenes from the areas where the plays are set.
Although the plays are set in different parts of the country, there are some common factors. The communities tend to have a rural or artisan background, be neglected by an indifferent central government and be facing a decline in their traditional industries and forced to resort to tourism to attract income. Manchester, of course, is the exception being an urban conurbation neglected by an indifferent central government, facing a decline in its traditional industries and forced to resort to tourism to attract income. As a sense of people coming to terms with feeling overlooked or powerless arises in the plays, inevitably Brexit pops up.
The cycle opens with Eskdale on the the uncomfortable relationship between rural and urban communities with the suggestion the former are being forced into becoming living museums; compelled to live up to stereotypes of pastoral living envied by urbanites whom the rural residents hope to attract to exploit their tourism potential. A family in Eskdale squabbles about how best to deal with the estate of a deceased parent with one sister having left for the big city and wishing now to return to what she sees as a simpler lifestyle while the rural dwelling sibling cannot wait to leave. All involved try to ignore the fact that the rural area is financially dependent upon income from a nearby nuclear power station and prosperous city-dwellers driving up property values.
Eskdale sets the template for the other plays in the cycle incorporating local tales of farmers, so hardcore they can chop off a frostbitten hand, into Chris Thorpe’s lyrical, and at times dense, narrative.
It is impossible to devise a state of the nation piece about the UK without acknowledging privilege and the way it shaped communities in the past and continues to do so to this day. Staindrop, the second play, concerns a community dependent upon Barnard Castle to attract tourist income and stimulate employment. Accordingly the cast are dressed in full Tudor costume as if taking part in an historical re-enactment at a stately home.
Staindrop combines a gothic tale of a past landowner whose belief in his own entitlement was so great he went too far in demanding what he perceived as his rights with a present-day story of the local gentry’s conflicted rent-collector. The rent collector talks passionately about the benefits open to tenants due to a forthcoming festival while all the tenants care about is if the rents are going to rise. It contains some of Thorpe’s most bleakly evocative writing as the rent collector, aggrieved that the community does not appreciate the efforts made by landowners to promote the area, points out it is easy to pretend things on the edge of decisions do not matter—because they simply do not.
In Whitby, a tourism officer takes extreme action upon learning that his role is to be terminated as the town returns to fishing rather than Dracula-based tourism in anticipation that the Brexit vote will stimulate the industry. Whitby makes a change of tone being a melancholic comedy but it seems that humour is not Thorpe’s strong suit. Comedy requires a tight, concise style while Thorpe tends towards verbosity. Possibly to ensure that the whole cast is used in each play Thorpe employs devices such as a narrator speaking in blank verse and Whitby is the least successful use of the technique.
Boston opens with a striking image of a ‘green man’ completely covered in flowers centre-stage. However, points about how a community can be united by negative factors—a shared distrust of immigrants—are made in a heavy handed manner including a cast member stepping out of character to point out the symbolism in the play.
Stoke is much more satisfying, becoming a call-to-arms as a pair of local politicians debate if a sense of powerlessness can lead to isolationism. Meanwhile, a local potter accidently nudges an alcoholic towards redemption. Thorpe’s suggestion that the region’s independent attitude, based upon its traditional artisan industries, can have a negative aspect as the area becomes suspicious of, and resistant to, offers of intervention from other regions is unusual and intriguing.
Manchester is the most ambitious of the cycle and makes enormous demands upon the cast as it is not staged as a play but rather as a monologue shared between them. The cast remain seated around the stage throughout, reliant on their voices to achieve any impact; it is a remarkable performance.
Manchester has never been shy of inventing legends about the area, including ‘Madchester’ and the Commonwealth Games, and Thorpe cheerfully pays tribute to this approach describing a city grown big enough to tell itself a story. It is a beautifully written speech mixing lyrical description with dry humour as the underclass are referred to as the type of people who have TV programmes made about their essential dignity.
Inevitably, however, the play turns to one of the defining events of the city with the bombing at the Manchester Arena and the aftermath. Thorpe’s sensitive and understated approach does not ignore the issue of how a member of the community could commit such an atrocity but points out that people made the best of themselves with spontaneous efforts to help. The use of evocative language ("what do we do after the after?") and a particularly striking period of extended silence have great impact.
The community-based approach taken by Sam Pritchard and Chris Thorpe anchors The Mysteries in both myth and reality—the plays are epic in scope but intimate in presentation. The Mysteries is more than a simple collection of plays and is a significant theatrical event well worth taking the challenge to see the full cycle for the feeling of having taken part in something special and so become part of the stories.