Theatre review: Chester Mystery Plays

06 July 2018

Pat Ashworth sees the Mysteries staged with clarity on a vast scale

Neil Kendall  

Nicholas Fry as Noah and Fiona MacSween as Mrs Noah look on as the world is destroyed by the Flood, in the 2018 Chester Mystery Plays

Nicholas Fry as Noah and Fiona MacSween as Mrs Noah look on as the world is destroyed by the Flood, in the 2018 Chester Mystery Plays

THERE is a particular moment in the Chester Mystery Plays when the Shepherds at the Nativity look outwards and upwards from the long thrust stage that dominates the nave of Chester Cathedral. The Gloria of the angels, a soprano duet, is pouring out like liquid gold, and and there’s enough light still streaming through the west window to convince us of a visitation from heaven.

Utter clarity is the hallmark of this epic community production, with 250 actors involved, half of them children. It is simply magnificent. Deborah McAndrew, the writer, has taken 19 of the cycle’s 24 plays and made a seamless whole out of them, a continuous narrative threaded through with recurring images or musical elements to draw the audience back to Creation and the Fall and forward to the Last Judgement.

mark carlineNick Sherratt as Christ in the 2018 Chester Mystery Plays

So Sam Baker, an exiled Cain boiling with anger and resentment against his brother, later plays the ruthless and mocking Antichrist. He erupts on to the stage in one of the most powerful scenes of all to lead the brazen, New Orleans-style jazz funeral that precedes a fearful Last Judgement in which even children are dragged screaming into hell. McAndrew wanted to view the story through the twin lenses of conflict and nature, “to make the story clear for someone who’d never heard of Adam or Noah, or even Jesus”.

There is no compromise to the language of the texts, blunt and northern utterances, which falls robustly and sweetly on the ear as if we had been hearing it all our lives. Sometimes it’s positively Shakespearean, as in the great mob scenes that fill the cathedral space like a giant canvas. Every word matters, and every word is heard in this acoustic. Nothing is laboured, and nothing is contrived, and often it’s just a subtle something which registers and chimes.

So, at the great self-congratulatory praise party that demonstrates how complacent God’s people have become, there’s the cameo appearance of a man in a high-vis vest, tut-tutting as he prods at the litter. He turns out to be Noah. William Wood’s powerful God picks up a plastic bottle in disgust after the party’s over. The sea round the Ark is choked with waste.

That’s when you remember how pure and beautiful it was at the gloriously lit Creation. The base of the Tree of Knowledge is heaped with books. Adam rises bewildered from a trapdoor, looking in wonder at his arms and slightly unsteady on his legs. In the radiant dumb show preceding the Creation, shining girls hold apples, and interweaving boys hold serpents. Lucifer is played by a woman; so are Pilate, Annas, and Caiphas; and women are among the disciples at the Last Supper.

The seamlessness of the story is reinforced, under Peter Leslie Wild’s artistic direction, with simple and powerful devices on a multi-level set. The mothers at the Slaughter of the Innocents cradle bundles that, when released in the monstrosity of the attack, unravel to become rectangles of linen painted with poppies. They lay them out like graves on the ground, an oblique reminder, in this commemoration year, of the losses of the First World War.

Mark CarlineThe Crucifixion, in the 2018 Chester Mystery Plays

The powerfully physical Crucifixion is a spectator sport, with Christ (Nick Sherratt) hammered on to the cross within touching distance of some of the audience. Punctuating the scenes here is the haunting reprise of “Adam lay ybounden”, a setting that is part of the new score by the production’s composer and musical director, Matt Baker.

He has spoken of the joy of working with such a vast number of singers and musicians of all ages and from all walks of life. And that’s the strongest and most memorable thing about this production — the glorious, joyous communality of it all. They do the Mystery Plays only every five years. It is infinitely worth waiting for.

The Chester Mystery Plays continue until Saturday 14 July. Box office: phone 01244 500959. chestermysteryplays.com

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