York Mystery Plays
Adapted by Mike Kenny
York Theatre Royal, Riding Lights Theatre Company, York Museums Trust
York Museum Gardens
After over a year of preparations, months of rehearsal, and featuring a cast and crew of thousands, mostly volunteers, it’s finally here. London may have enjoyed a one-night stand with Danny Boyle, Edinburgh may be flirting with too many to keep track of, but York now plays host to a whole month of Passionate performances.
The tradition being honoured here is the medieval one of the Mystery Plays, of which York is proud to possess one of the most complete cycles. Local players still annually group in guilds to perform one or two of the plays, but since the 1951 Festival of Britain a new tradition has sprung up whereby roughly once every four years, all of the pieces are edited and combined into a single performance. The last on a comparable scale was Greg Doran’s Millennium Mystery Plays, staged in York Minster in 2000.
This year sees the celebration of eight centuries of York’s existence as a city, and as such the Mystery Plays have been pitched as a massive celebration of the community, with the largest ever cast and a gigantic 1500-seater auditorium specially erected in the Museum Gardens for the occasion. Mike Kenny has been charged with the mindboggling task of sampling, trimming and combining the originally quite separate portrayals of different stages of the Biblical story into a coherent three (or so) hours of theatre.
The short story is: the project succeeds, massively. An enormous, cross-cultural, interfaith cast comes together to tell, in a series of at times hugely impressive vignettes and images, a story told and retold by the York community for centuries. The setting is beautiful, with the timing of evening shows ensuring that as the sun goes down the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey glow with light, both electric and natural (weather permitting).
Paul Burbridge and Damian Cruden’s direction in the first half, particularly, makes use of some ingenious stagecraft to generate memorable imagery drawing on hundreds of cast members. The staging, with audience on three sides, is masterful, with careful attention paid to ensure that these moments are shared with all of the audience. Kenny has successfully maintained a light touch in updating the original language while ensuring that the story both whips along and remains understandable, taking us through a sort of whistlestop ‘God’s Greatest Hits’. The Garden of Eden, populated by topiary creatures and their attendant gardeners, and the Flood are both effective set-pieces. The birth of Christ, when it comes, is fittingly simpler, though no less efficiently staged.
Throughout, the action is almost constantly underscored by music composed by Christopher Madin, the prerecorded score mingling seamlessly with two choirs and a live brass band. This element, too, helps drive the production along and provides a filmic and emotive backing to the narrative.
In the second half, it must be said, more seems to be played ‘out front’ to the largest block of seating, with fewer large set-pieces of similar creativity. But it is moments of simplicity which shine through here; the episode of the ‘Woman taken in Adultery’ and the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane (with its skeletal echoes of Eden) are both the more effective for their understated quietness.
If something is lacking here, it is, perhaps inevitably, the more human scale. Given the admirable desire to include as many community cast members as possible, we don’t get much opportunity to gain a sense of friendship or indeed community, between, say, the disciples and Jesus. But this is not the story the production sets out to tell. Ferdinand Kingsley as God and Jesus is an amiable and intelligent presence, though the scope of the role(s) means that he’s at times reduced to something of a master of ceremonies, presiding over the construction of the next theatrical image. These moments are, however, undoubtedly worth experiencing.
The other professional cast member, Graeme Hawley as Satan, feels strangely underused. The Temptation in the Wilderness seems somewhat out of context, and does not appear to be a particularly tough struggle for Jesus. Satan drifts in and out of the picture (as, admittedly, he does in the original stories), but appears menacing rather than malevolent. It’s an odd role, and may have worked as a meatier part for a community cast member instead, but both Hawley and Kingsley acquit themselves well. It would be unfair to single out other individual cast members for praise or censure, given the production’s scope, and the fact that two casts share performance duties. Let it just be said that there is intelligence here too, with many of the ‘named’ parts filled by talented amateur performers who perform at times movingly, but who also combine to populate, furnish, and clear the stage with remarkable efficiency.
While ‘epic’ is a word much bandied around, the lack of a continuous through narrative means that the production does not quite feel like a true epic. These reservations aside, though, the production is certainly an event, and everyone in York and the area, regardless of positions of faith, should rush to witness it.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith