The Wakefield Mysteries
Theatre Royal Wakefield
When I drove down to Wakefield to see the Mysteries I was not expecting an intense theatrical experience. I went to support Everal A Walsh, an actor I admire and a friend since we worked together over a decade ago.
And now this production of The Wakefield Mysteries enters my top ten theatrical experiences. These range from Brook’s Marat/Sade to Josh’s Funeral, a play written by Dennis Best, an ex-miner, and presented in a room where the victims of the pit tragedy it commemorated were laid out a hundred years earlier.
In Best’s play, most of the actors were descended from those who had worked in Micklefield pit, as were two thirds of the audience. It ran for three nights and sold out every night. For me, Best’s village play is an ultimate; a standard against which to judge community based theatre. Staged in the magnificent thousand-year-old cathedral, The Wakefield Mysteries meets that standard.
The tradition dates back to the thirteenth century; as with the other existing mysteries (York, Chester and Coventry) it features a sequence of scenes or pageants that are taken from the Bible.
The original Wakefield texts were said to be particularly finely rhymed and also satirical and witty. This is assumed to be largely to the credit of ‘the Wakefield Master’, an otherwise un-named writer, who introduced new tableaux to the sequence and generally improved the old ones. Playwright Nick Lane has risen to the implicit challenge, updating the language and, most significantly, adding a contemporary narrative backdrop.
The stories start with The Creation, which here is set in 1984. Why? No need for this audience to ask. It is the year of the miners’ strike when this area often resembled a police state, when the Thatcher government began to lay waste to the industrial north, when families and communities were shattered.
Film of the time is shown around the space on large TV screens. A cast of nineteen, plus musicians and ‘chaperones’, flood into the body of the Cathedral and begin a rhythmic whispering which gradually becomes the memorable chant: "the miners, united, will never be defeated!"
Then we meet God as played by Everal A Walsh, an impressive figure in donkey jacket and miner’s helmet, a mixture of power and innocence. Enter Alison Peebles as Lucifer, a small explosion of satanic energy, wheedling, mocking, seductive, vituperative. These two actors were made to play off and against each other, just like God and Lucifer; superb casting by director Andrew Loreto.
And so it goes, through The Killing of Able, Noah and the Ark, up to Herod the Great. And here, after eleven scenes, the first part (The Fall And Rise) ends. The year is 1997, the year of the New Labour victory.
Part II (The Price Of Love) takes us from Jesus’s arrest (2003 AD, year of the biggest demonstration ever to occur in Britain, one that was ignored by our ‘leaders’) to God’s final, moving judgement (2016, BREXIT, the first real indication that a we are facing a possibly evolutionary if not revolutionary change in our politics). God, who has almost been driven to a second flood, suggests that we need to move forward with ideas, and a good one is love.
Nick Lane scatters the text (and Loreto the production) with anachronistic detail: mobile 'phones, TV studio interview, skateboard, mobility scooter. But there is no attempt in the script to make overt references to contemporary politics. No need, the stories themselves, stories of murder, deceit, retribution, hypocrisy, are shown to be as apposite to the screened film excerpts as to the times from which they originated.
Along with Walsh and Peebles, Loreto has assembled a troop of mainly local performers aged 13 to 70+ and with varied degrees of theatrical experience. The sense of ‘rightness’ here is almost tangible. These are the people who would have enacted the tales six hundred years ago. They are clearly moved by the experience. And so are the audience.
At one point we are ushered out of the cathedral by the ‘chaperones’. Afternoon shoppers stroll by, then a figure dressed in Guantanamo Bay orange appears, staggering under the weight of the cross. He is helped by another. Together the raise the cross then painfully re-enter the Cathedral. I stood apart and studied the faces of the audience. Some were transparently close to tears. There was pain, concentration, sorrow; there was absolute and total involvement.
There are many moving and funny episodes. When Walsh enacts the whole sequence of childhood to adulthood in a few seconds, from "daa" and "daadaa", through "dad?", to "TWAT!" we laugh, but we also feel God’s pain at the loss of his human son. This and other moments of theatricality work as they should, like magic. We don’t think how clever is the illusion, because the illusion is working. When the slaughter of the first born is, in fact, nothing more than flurries of muslin drifting to the floor, the audience is horrified, almost in a state of shock.
Nick Lane, Andrew Loreto, associate director Amanda Huxtable and assistant director Kyle Williams together with their troop and creative team have created a magnificent example of theatre at its best. Only ten performances, but it is, of course, a very long-running project, starting hundreds of years ago and stretching into the distant future.
I hope Nick Lane, the new Wakefield Master, will be tweeting his script for next year.
Reviewer: Ray Brown