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Travel: Play’s the thing to unite the City of Chester

27 January 2023

The Chester Mystery Plays are just one of many ways the city blends ancient and modern, says David Atkinson

Neil Kendall

Nyall Bolam as one of Noah’s sons, and Nicholas Fry as Noah, in the last performance of the Chester Mystery Plays, in 2018

Nyall Bolam as one of Noah’s sons, and Nicholas Fry as Noah, in the last performance of the Chester Mystery Plays, in 2018

THE Chester Mystery Plays actor Nick Fry still remembers the power he felt in the opening scene. “I was playing God in 2013, and we opened with me sat atop a giant stepladder,” he says. “As I delivered my opening line from Revelation — ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End’ — I felt the shivers run down my spine. I can still feel them now.”

The former professional actor, now heritage manager of Chester Cathedral, and a Chester Mystery Plays (CMP) board member, has been involved with CMP for more than 25 years, playing a range of roles from Herod to Lucifer. This summer, he will be back in the nave of Chester Cathedral for the latest cycle of the plays, from 28 June to 15 July, with more than 450 audience members expected at each performance.

“The Chester Mystery Plays reflect the history of both the cathedral and the city — and it’s a living history. The plays are steeped in history, yet remain of the community and for the community,” he says.

The 24 plays, based on Bible stories, form an overarching narrative from the Creation to the Last Judgement, and are performed on a five-year cycle in Chester. They originated in the city in the 1300s, with small-scale church productions and a script in Latin. By the 1400s, the plays had been adopted by the Crafts Guilds, bodies of local tradesmen like a modern-day trade union, to be staged and performed in Middle English. The plays formed part of the three-day Feast of Corpus Christi fair, with the players performing on pageant carts and the audience standing at fixed points around the city, such as the Cross, and Abbey Gateway — locations still there today.

The Plays became associated with bawdy crowd behaviour, and were banned after the Reformation. The last performance in Chester was in 1578, making Chester home to the longest-running cycle in medieval times. But the plays returned to the city as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain, and have been performed at Chester Cathedral since 2013.

The CMP emphasis differs with each cycle, according to the creative vision of the artistic director, and often has a contemporary message. Chester’s production also claims a point of difference to other plays in York and Coventry: these plays feature a narrator, Gobbets, who is unique to Chester.

“The origin of these plays is educating people about the Bible — and there’s still an element of that. We know the scenes in isolation, but I want to draw out the narrative thread of personal journeys that run through them,” the artistic director for the 2023 plays, John Young, says.

For that reason, this year’s production will be presented in traverse on three stages, with a central street, and the audience seated in four rows on either side. “This harks back to the origins of the plays as medieval street theatre. The audience could touch the players — see the spit fly as they delivered their lines with passion. Bringing the actors back close to the crowd will bring these stories alive.”

After the final curtain, the physical traces live on inside Chester Cathedral. The cathedral was founded in 1092 as the Benedictine monastery of St Werbergh, and saved after the dissolution of the monasteries as the cathedral of the new diocese of Chester. Beyond the nave, remodelled by the Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott, the 14th-century carvings of the Quire feature acrobats and masks from the early plays.

In the north transept, meanwhile, a tapestry by the American textile artist B. J. Elvgren depicts the medieval carts and key scenes, such as the stories of Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Ark. Inspired by the plays, it was presented to the cathedral in the 1990s.

No visit to the cathedral is complete, meanwhile, without a visit to the Lady Chapel, where the shrine of St Werbergh sparked a pilgrimage boom to the city in the Middle Ages. The refectory, where the monks ate in silence while listening to the scriptures, retains its ancient ambience as a place to break bread (it is now The Refectory Café).

Across the city, too, there are nods to the way the evolution of the plays has become an integral part of Chester’s rich, 2000-year history. The city was founded by the Romans in about 74 AD; one of its unique features remains the Rows, four main streets of half-timbered 13th-century buildings that radiate out from the Cross, down four main shopping streets at the heart of the city.

Today, these medieval double-galleried buildings, unique to Chester, beckon shoppers to their first-floor- and street-level boutiques. During the Middle Ages, however, undercrofts and workshops featured at street level, while the first-floor galleries offered an elevated vantage point to watch the plays — as, indeed, they still do for annual events such as the city’s 500-year-old Midsummer Watch Parade.

A free new exhibition, exploring the development of the Rows, is at Chester’s Grosvenor Museum until 30 April. It features rare watercolours by the Victorian artist Louise Rayner. Twenty-three of the ancient company guilds also survive in modern Chester, with eligible new Freemen, descendants of former Freemen, admitted each year at the Pentice Court held in the town hall. The Freedom of the City of Chester was extended to welcome women members in 1992.

Otherwise, a trip to the city should include visiting the Roman Amphitheatre, the largest in Britain, where gladiators once battled, and the adjoining St John’s, the city’s original site of ancient worship (possibly as far back as the third or fourth century), and the original seat of the Bishop of Chester.

As for the future, the plays and the city are set to remain tightly interwoven with a non-professional cast and a professional backstage of lighting, sound, and costume dedicated to keeping the tradition alive in Chester. “The plays are a celebration of faith, but also of the secular, given their community-theatre element. It’s a magical opportunity for Chester to come together every five years,” Mr Young says.

As for Mr Fry, he is sharing the role of God with an actress, this June. Whatever his billing, however, he will savour the hush that falls across the cathedral and the wider city for curtain up, as these timeless stories send collective shivers down the spine of Chester. “It’s one of Chester’s largest community events, and everyone can take part in exactly the same way the people of Chester have done for hundreds of years,” he says.


Travel details

Stay at the Chester Grosvenor Hotel (chestergrosvenor.com), still the best address in town. Eat at Da Noi (danoichester.co.uk), a local favourite for top-notch Italian, or go for variety at the food court in the New Chester Market (newchester.market), a stone’s throw from Chester Cathedral (chestercathedral.com). For more information about the Chester Mysery Plays visit chestermysteryplays.com/discover/history. For more about Chester, visitcheshire.com/chester.

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