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York Minster hosts Mystery Plays

03 June 2016


“Epic design”: images from performances of the Mystery Plays at York Minster over last weekend - The last judgement

“Epic design”: images from performances of the Mystery Plays at York Minster over last weekend - The last judgement

THERE is something surreal about walking into York Minster and making a steep and metalled ascent towards the great west window to attain your seat. It took three weeks to transform the cathedral into the 1000-seater auditorium in which the York Mystery Cycle is being played out, and the flights of steps of Max Jones’s epic design soar so high that the carved pinnacles of the 15th-century rood screen are just visible above, like a distant citadel.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels in this set-up is pure Paradise Lost. You hear the flurry of movement before you see it: the solitary appearance of God on the summit in bright golden mask; and the panoply of silver and gold that follows in a rush of magnificence. Voices carry power and authority in this vast space. The strings of bobbing inflatable planets are played out like kites to rise towards the high vaulted ceiling at the Creation.

And God’s from Yorkshire, of course, unmasked and stepping down to advise Noah builder to builder. The spectacular sea of rippling blue silk that cascades down the terraces almost engulfs the boat; so that those who are wafting the waves look themselves to be immersed.

Crowd scenes — sometimes a tide of more than 100 people — are powerful and disturbing throughout; but smaller episodes, too, can command the stage. There is a Shakespearean ring to the sacrifice of Isaac, before the rescuing angels charge over the hill like the Light Brigade.

Herod is defiantly un-Roman, a self-made man with an exaggerated train like molten gold, who greets the Wise Men with a brisk “’Ow do.” When it comes to the ripping apart of dolls’ heads and limbs that is the Massacre of the Innocents, a man in front of me casts anxious sideways glances at his young son, and puts a shielding arm around him.

Sound echoes and magnifies in here: the voice of Jesus is distinctive and sonorous; the first stone to be dropped at the taking of the woman in adultery falls with a dull thud; a fanfare greets the rising of Lazarus; the treble voices of angel choristers soar.

We need the interval after two hours, but no one strays far. There is a stretching of legs, a gulping of water, a buzz of anticipation. The new Roman presence on the terraces lends an air of Hollywood epic at times, as though we have strayed into a film set.

Pilate and his wife arrive in a canopied state bed, denied their romp. Christ has to heave his cross up the steep steps. The crowd flinch with each hammer blow; and the man in front of me glances again at his child. The three hanging bodies are illuminated like shrines. “On the rood I am ragged and rent,” Christ cries in torment.

At the moment of the Ascension, the afternoon sun pours marvellously through the west window to irradiate and warm. They could not have planned it better — but then God’s a Yorkshireman.

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