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Theatre review: York Mystery Plays

14 September 2018

Pat Ashworth sees the York Mystery Plays as they would have been in the Middle Ages

Lewis Outing

YORK audiences get a chance every four years to see the wagon plays, a miniature version of the 48-play Corpus Christi cycle (Arts, 8 August 2014). As one farm wagon gets trundled out to its next location, another — led by the early music of Waits — is poised to rumble in with the next part of the story. It is a masterpiece of pageantry of which the Guilds of York are justly proud.

What we usually see are the chosen plays in chronological sequence; but, in 2018, there is a reversion to a typological approach — an understanding in the Middle Ages that people, events, and images of the Old Testament prefigured those of the New Testament. Audiences would have been familiar with the pairing of stories; so that the Crucifixion and Death of Christ would naturally follow the story of Abraham and Isaac; and the remorse of Cain would be mirrored in the Remorse of Judas.

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It works beautifully. The mind picks up the sequence and travels with it. Everything is somehow heightened, and the appropriateness of a particular play for a particular community group is enhanced. It is natural for the York Guild of Building to “bring forth” Creation to the Fifth Day, and the Company of Butchers the Crucifixion.

Seeing the whole sequence played out in the golden courtyard of the largely 16th-century King’s Manor, in Exhibition Square, felt like a command performance. A stoutly Yorkshire God has a cuppa before he embarks on making the world. Like Theseus and Hippolyta watching Pyramus and Thisbe, the audience responds with mock awe to the homespun nature of it all, as the pop-up wonders of the firmament are winched up and down on creaking pulleys, and the cardboard whale manages a spew of water.

Creation is paired with the Annunciation and Visitation of Mary, from the Guild of Media and Arts. Then it’s the Fall of Man, which has an all-female cast from the Vale of York Academy that includes Kelly Docker’s rather marvellous Satan. She flaunts herself like a rebel who has defied an instruction to wear school uniform, and poor Eve gets a roasting from a diminutive God in a posh frock. What keeps these plays so fresh is the autonomy given to each group to cast and set as they choose, while remaining true to the medieval texts.

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The Fall of Man is paired with the Temptation of Christ from the Company of Cordwainers, with another all-female cast. The Remorse of Judas, from the York St John University Players, is visually inspired by the richly coloured paintings of the Russian artist and theologian Nicholas Roerich. Harry Murdoch’s Judas is a haggard and haunted figure, pleading for Christ to be saved, while a grinning, capering Demon hands him the rope to do the job. The Guild of Scriveners presents Abraham and Isaac — the latter a cheerful lad who doesn’t know what’s coming to him: “Truly, son, I can no longer lie.”

It is paired with the Crucifixion and Death of Christ, the most powerful of all the plays. Watching the experienced wagon master and crew setting up the heavy cart, with its ropes and pulleys, is a precursor in itself to the episode of the four labourers’ nailing Christ (Joy Warner) to the cross. “Will you ’ark at that, for God’s sake,” they say in contempt, as they listen to his wild speech.

The hard woman, Longinus, is afterwards filled with remorse: in a brief Deposition, she caresses Christ’s feet before falling into the arms of Mary. The cry, “On rood I am ragged and rent” cuts to the quick.

St Luke’s, York, present Moses and Pharaoh: every age is represented and two carts are built from scratch. The Plagues are vividly realised: circling children with fiery headdresses create the burning bush, and the Egyptians drown under four giant umbrellas. Here was the most tender piece of music, the Israelites’ lullaby as Miriam lays the baby Moses in the bulrushes — sung beneath the green canopy of an overarching tree.


Israelites yearn for freedom: souls long for liberty in the Harrowing of Hell, from the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust. Trapped behind tautly stretched, blood-red fabric that can barely contain the thrust of their clawing hands are Adam and Eve, Moses, Simeon, Deborah, John the Baptist, and people from every period of history. Terror reigns, before Christ releases them, celebrated by a medieval friar rocking on electric guitar.

And, finally, comes the stand-alone, pull-out-all-the-stops spectacular that is Judgement Day, from the steampunk Morris dancers of Ravens Morris. A sea of white and light, with bridal dresses, bodices, and veils, it is — despite the horrors of plague, the flag-furling Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the fearful sound of the last trumpet, and Christ’s berating of humankind — ultimately about salvation and not damnation. We go out to Hallelujah.

The final performances of the 2018 York Mystery Plays take place on Sunday. Buy tickets at www.yorkmysteryplays.co.uk

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