IT IS a pleasure to report that the Mystery play is alive and well — and not only in Ambridge. The Players of St Peter, who began life 75 years ago at St Peter’s, Cornhill, in the City of London, have had various locations over the years, but are now based at St Saviour’s, Chalk Farm, in north-west London, where they presented four performances of this year’s offering, a “director’s cut” featuring four of the 48 plays in the York Cycle, which, complete, depicts biblical events from creation to the last judgement.
These plays — originally sponsored by craft guilds whose names live on in the titles — were The Spicers’ Play (The Annunciation and Visitation), The Pewterers’ and Founders’ Play (Joseph’s Trouble about Mary), The Tile Thatchers’ Play (The Nativity), and The Masons’ and Goldsmiths’ Play (The Magi).
The group’s long tradition clearly shows in the ease with which roles were dispatched: serene Mary, benign Gabriel, Joseph not easily convinced that his wife’s baby had come from God (“Nay, some man in angel’s likeness with some game has her beguiled”), the Magi, one of whom was a woman; and minor characters, no doubt thanks to Gill Taylor’s expert direction, fully engaged with the action — the expressive ox and ass, the kings’ servant shaking his arm back to life after carrying the heavy box of gifts; the star held high on a pole, all this often reminiscent of Shakespeare’s rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The music — with solo soprano, recorders, violin, cittern and percussion — was immaculately played by The Mystery Band, with the singer Helen Garrison, and at a small pipe organ was Paul Nicholson, former associate director of the London Handel and Tilford Bach Festivals, whom St Saviour’s is so fortunate now to have as its Vicar. But the actors sang, too (rather well), in impressive costumes, and we all stood to join in The Sussex Carol at the end.
It seems to me that Mystery plays — in the 15th and 16th centuries the most popular and enduring form of public entertainment in Britain, before theatres as we now know them came to be built — could at Christmas come to rival the traditional pantomime for good family entertainment, accentuating the true meaning of Christmas in a now largely secular (and, in the case of the pantomime, celebrity-obsessed) world. Perhaps The Archers, doing this very thing, will draw wider attention to this wonderful, often funny, frequently moving genre, and to groups such as The Players of St Peter, who do it so splendidly.