LONDON has had the Olympics, but York has had the Mystery Plays.
It might seem a ludicrous comparison, but the scale of the
production had to be seen to be believed, and its legacy is
Led by a professional creative team, with two professional
actors, the 1700 volunteers came from every York postcode. A
thousand were directly involved in the production: around a third
were under 25; others had taken part 24 years ago, the last time
the plays were performed in the St Mary's Abbey ruins in the Museum
Gardens rather than on pageant wagons. Two parallel casts of 250
created the tide of humanity that ebbed and flowed across the
enormous thrust stage.
Given that scale and vision, and a grandstand view from three
sides, this was a very different animal from the episodic sequences
of the streets. The writer, Mike Kenny, turned material from 32 of
the 48 plays - which comprise an estimated 14 hours' worth of text
- into one coherent and seamless three-hour offering. Co-directed
by Paul Burbridge, artistic director of Riding Lights, and Damian
Cruden, artistic director of York Theatre Royal, it was epic:
visually stunning and powerfully moving.
Influenced by the work of the British war artist Stanley
Spencer, they chose to set it in the context of 1951, when a
condensed version of the play was performed in the Abbey ruins. In
the delight and flourish- ing of a topiary Garden of Eden, barrowed
in by straw-hatted gardeners, Adam and Eve were children of the
'50s, shining with the hope of a new age to come. No body suits and
fig leaves here: instead, the young couple who succeeded the
children emerged embarrassedly buttoning up their clothes, to
depart with their suitcases.
An intense and passionate God/ Jesus (Ferdinand Kingsley)
scribbled and scrawled and rubbed out the formulae of his creation
on the ground like a man possessed. The henchmen of Satan (Graeme
Hawley) were sharp-suited men and scornful women with the composure
and bearing of air hostesses: the '50s setting was also the licence
for women thieves, disciples, even carpenters ramming the nails
into Jesus' hands.
The language - largely the original medieval text - could rain
like hammer blows, especially in the Passion sequences. Elsewhere,
its very sparseness could be laden with irony: "Hail, Mary. I'm
home," said a bitter and likeable Joseph; "I'm not best pleased,"
complained Noah's wife, every inch a Yorkshire- woman.
So often it was something visual that burned on the mind: the
tiny, limp bodies of children beached after the Flood; God himself
tying the baby gently into Mary's apron; the litter of dropped
stones remaining after the rabble-rousers and crowd had slunk away
from the woman taken in adultery; the terrified convoy of refugees
shot by soldiers on the road. In a sudden downpour over York, the
disciples in a withered Gethsemane lay soaked and huddled on the
And most of all, there was the terrible harrowing of hell, the
trapped souls massing within scarcely containable gates that burst
and fell in a clatter of steel poles, as Satan vanished through a
forest of flailing hands as though through quicksand. On a
multi-level set with theatrical use of trapdoors and pits, the
action flowed from a great height peopled with rainbow angels, to
the smoking pit of hell.
I came out from a matinée performance into the mêlée of shoppers
and tourists and plumaged race-goers jostling across Lendal Bridge,
down to the railway station and on to trains that swelled during
the journey with football supporters, amiable drunks on stag
nights, and fractious children. And it struck me then, and strikes
me now, that I had just witnessed the whole human condition on
stage, and that here it was still, the thick of it, the world in
all its messiness, but capable of redemption.
They hope to do the Mystery Plays again in this form in four
years time (with a pageant-wagon performance scheduled for 2014).
Like the Olympics, best get it into the diary now.