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The Mysteries in the Minster

22 January 2016

The medieval York Mystery Plays are being staged in York Minster for only the second time. Pat Ashworth reports


Terra firma: Noah’s Ark in the Mystery Plays wagon performance

Terra firma: Noah’s Ark in the Mystery Plays wagon performance

IMAGES remain burned on my mind from the epic 2012 production of the York Mystery Plays, which were influenced by the work of the British war artist Stanley Spencer, set in the context of 1951, and played outdoors in the city’s Museum Gardens.

Audiences will remember an intense and passionate God, furiously scribbling on the ground his formulae for creation; a straw-hatted Adam and Eve, shining children of the 1950s; sharp-suited henchmen of Satan; and a Joseph who greeted his wife with an ironic “Hail Mary. I’m home.”

There were unforgettable scenes: God tying the baby gently into Mary’s apron; the tiny, limp bodies of children beached after the Flood; the terrified convoy of refugees shot by soldiers on the road; trapped souls, massing within the scarcely containable gates of hell. In a sudden downpour over York, the disciples in a withered Gethsemane lay soaked on the ground.

The plays — 48 of them, with an estimated 14 hours’ worth of text — have enormous power and resonance for any age. The words and alliteration can rain like hammer blows, or be sparse with irony.

In 2012, I commented on “coming 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, 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” (Arts, 31 August 2012).


IN 2014, a stunning, pageant-wagon performance took place in the streets: a jolly Creation by a 14th-century master mason; storm-troopers with Kalashnikovs for the Massacre of the Innocents; a Crucifixion and Death of Christ that was searing to behold; a chilling Last Judgement of clocks and dials, cogs and wheels, and steampunk angels. All this among barking dogs, and curious passers-by, and people eating pizza (Arts, 8 August 2014).

Now, the plays return to York Minster for the first time since the Millennium, and only the second time in their 700-year history. Tickets went on sale on 13 January for the five weeks of performance, which begin on 26 May, the feast of Corpus Christi.

With a budget of £1.25 million, and potential audience numbers of 41,000, it will be the biggest event the Minster has ever put on. Directed by Phillip Breen, who works extensively with the RSC, and written by Mike Poulton, who scripted the Millennium production, and who recently adapted Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies for the RSC, it will have a single cast of 250 volunteers, including 50 children and young people. A professional actor will play Jesus.


WHEN the Very Revd Vivienne Faull became Dean in 2012, informal approaches had already been made by the Board of York Millennium Mystery Plays to see whether the Minster would consider putting on the plays in 2016.

There was much to consider — not least the fact that a five-year restoration project, York Minster Revealed, was under way, and was due to finish at the end of March this year.

“We decided it would be a very appropriate way of marking the end of the work, particularly because the great east window depicts the beginning and end of all things,” the Dean says. “We took a big breath and, because it was a big commitment both financially and of time, only went public 18 months ago with the announcement that it would be coming to the Minster.”

No one “owns” the York Mystery Plays other than the people of York, who have a common interest in them. Guilds, companies, and other city groups put on the wagon performances.

“We see this as our turn, our offering to the city, and it may be possible to do it every decade in the Minster,” Dean Faull says. She describes the building as “one of the most dramatic churches in Christendom”.

“It encapsulates in its architecture and design something of the immanence and transcendence of God,” she says with fervour.

“It’s huge, and yet it’s immensely friendly, and I think that will be reflected in the production itself. It will communicate something of the glory and grandeur of God, but also something of the approachability of God, and the things of the Bible and the Spirit. Holding those things together is a kind of reflection of the building itself.”


DEAN FAULL has been involved with theatre in a variety of ways. She grew up in Chester, which has its own regular cycle of Mystery plays, and remembers one of her teachers playing the Voice of God: “I never saw him in the same light again. . . So it fitted with my background that we should put this on.

“And the other reason I wanted to do it is because York Minster isn’t just a dramatic building: it tells stories as well, through its glass, and I was really keen that we should tell the story of our faith in all kinds of media, in an era when perhaps the reading of texts is no longer as accessible as it was.

“We need to find ways of reaching out to new generations that are often unfamiliar with the Bible, and are unlikely to start reading the text, but may well start by experiencing this theatrical retelling of the story.”


IN PRACTICAL terms, the Minster is also an umbrella: “It does make it easier for people, knowing they’re not going to get wet or freezing cold,” she suggests.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a theatre; so the challenge is that we have to bring in everything we need to create theatre, but in a way that reflects and supports the work of the building all the time.

”There’s no point in trying to fight the building: we have to work with it. It’s a huge undertaking, but what we are trying to do all the time is not to displace either worship, or those who want to come to visit. And we want to try and manage their expectations, and manage the set, so that they will come in and experience the building in a whole new way.”

Closure at some key points will be necessary, and some services will transfer elsewhere — notably on matinée days, when sound-checks and warm-ups for the evening performance make for a tight timetable.

Choral evensong on those days will take place across the road, in St Michael-le-Belfrey, a church that is already in close partnership with the Minster. “And there are, of course, other things, like ordination services, which need to happen in the Minster,” the Dean says.


THE buzz is starting, fuelled by the auditions that were held in the run-up to Christmas, and by the opening of the box office. A community is being created that includes the 400 backstage volunteers, aptly named the Mystery Makers, all working without payment; the majority of them drawn from the community.

The roles of Mary and Joseph are already cast: Ruby Barker, a former pupil of Tadcaster Grammar School, now on a gap year before taking up a place at the London School of Economics; and Mark Comer, a graphic designer who has been involved in the York Mystery Plays and the Wagon Plays for many years, and whose previous roles have included Noah, Jesus, Beelzebub, and Zacchaeus.

“I’m delighted — a little bit daunted, but also very excited to have landed such an important part in what will be an amazing production,” Mr Comer says.

“These plays are deeply embedded in the culture and traditions of York and the wider region, and I have come to appreciate how special they are.”


THE plays are special, too, for Phillip Breen, who was urged by Greg Doran, the artistic director of the RSC and director of the Millennium production, to take up this challenge.

A Roman Catholic by background, he acknowledges that he has been on something of a spiritual journey himself in the past few years, and that the timing is appropriate.

“Being asked to direct the Mysteries is a thrill — at its root, they are every story ever told,” he says. “Love, hate, tragedy, comedy, sacrifice, redemption. . . But, in 2016, we have to focus what comes through each play, not just the words on the page. What part of being alive today does this story resonate with?

“This is why the Mysteries continue to be done — because they evolve. They always have; they’re somehow permanent and contemporary. They are asking the most profound questions about who we are, where we are going, and what it means to be alive.”

So how, he asks, could you do the story of Noah and the flood — with its argument between Noah and Mrs Noah that runs “There’s a massive flood coming” “No, there isn’t” — without thinking about contemporary issues around climate change? or approach the slaughter of the innocents, in which children’s lives are wiped out to achieve ruthless political ends, and not think about recent images of refugees from parts of the Middle East, and dead children washed up on foreign shores?


OF PARTICULAR importance in this Minster production, he believes, is the bringing together of 1000 people in a room “to engender a sense of shared imagination that works contrary to how we increasingly experience life now, in which the human experience is increasingly atomised behind [social media].

“While the digital age ostensibly promises greater communication and connectivity, many people feel it has made their lives increasingly more isolated,” he reflects.

“If something is difficult or unpalatable, we can turn it off; we don’t have to see anything we don’t want to. It seems to me that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for moments when lots of people come together and share one thing, and have the opportunity to meditate on the bigger picture — big ideas of right and wrong, belief and non-belief; how we go about living good lives in a world that, for many, seems to reward only the morally dubious.”


FOR the producer, Nicola Corp, this is “a rare opportunity to see the city’s most famous plays performed in its most iconic building. The plays dramatise the greatest story ever told — from the creation of heaven and earth to the last judgement — so it’s a story of good versus evil; of life and death; and of love, betrayal, and hope.”

Dean Faull describes Ms Corp as “a fantastic producer, who has come in from the BBC, grew up in Hull, lives in Yorkshire, and is a person of Christian faith for whom this is a lifetime opportunity”.


IN 2012, 2000 people saw the Millennium Mystery Plays in the Minster — much talked about for the stunning use of the vaulted roof to create the rainbow after Noah’s flood; for the bathing of God in pure white light; and for the power of the crucifixion scene. “Splendour and continuing potency”, the Financial Times said.

That production, in which Ray Stevenson played Jesus, and which featured original music by a local composer, Richard Shephard (now a lay canon of the Minster), made more money than expected, and the Board of York Millennium Mystery Plays has contributed the surplus to the forthcoming production.

“They generously offered to hand that over to us, to enable us to get off the ground,” Dean Faull says with gratitude. In a financial environment more difficult than in the year 2000, she acknowledges that it has not been easy to raise corporate, Arts Council, or local-authority funding: “There is some, but not a huge amount.

“So ticket sales are vital. Our plan is to balance the books; and we are debating much in Chapter to make sure we are as careful as possible as we mitigate the risk.

“But we are regarding this as a very important adventure — in a major church building, that is recognised as a house of prayer for all people, and a focus for the civic life of the city. It has concentrated our minds, and we are working very, very hard.”



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