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All human life here, in York

31 August 2012

Pat Ashworth sees the York Mysteries - medieval drama transposed to 1951


Fall: Ewan Croft and Anna Robinson as a youthful, 1950s-style, fully clothed Adam and Eve in this year's production of The York Mysteries

Fall: Ewan Croft and Anna Robinson as a youthful, 1950s-style, fully clothed Adam and Eve in this year's production of The York Mysteries

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 assured.

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 ground.

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.


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