The 2016 production of the Mystery Plays was one of the most impressive pieces of theatre that I have ever seen. I know that for some of you, the idea of a religious performance in a religious venue conjures up images of an evening spent in the most boring possible way. Believe me, this was anything but boring.
As the director, Philip Breen said in an interview, from which I’ll quote, ‘We return to these Plays again and again because they are asking the most profound questions about who we are, where we are going and what it means to be alive.’ In the bible we have stories about love and hate, families – supportive and destructive, power struggles, sex, war, good and evil, birth, life and death, racial tensions, moments and events that changed the course of history. What more could one want for any number of highly dramatic scenes and a play that makes Shakespeare seem tame? There are also some very funny scenes.
In all, eighteen scenes were presented for us that night, beginning with the Fall of the Rebel Angels and the introduction of Lucifer as he defied God, leading his ‘devils’ down under the stage to hell.
I must deviate for a moment here, to try to describe the physical setup inside the Minster. The stage was constructed on multiple levels with the rear, high part starting from as close as they could get to the choir stalls near the front end of the building. Stretching right across the width of the central section of the Minster, it was also vast from front to back. Sections of the floor were able to open when required to let the actors drop down below the stage and the great height inside the cathedral allowed for any amount of assisted ‘flying’.
The audience sat in rows that were tiered up and away from the stage like a normal theatre but unfortunately with insufficient thought given to the comfort of paying patrons. The rows of seats were packed in so tightly that stretching legs was impossible and I felt as though my knees were up near my ears. In front of us a family of large men had to take turns to stand at the side of the aisle and sort of lean out into space so that others seated higher up could see past them. They and many others left at interval and we were able to move down to the lower, flat section which had less of a view, but proper seats.
The Minster was an awe inspiring venue for any theatrical production and an ideal one for staging this massive work, but places like the Museum Gardens, the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and various parts of the universities in York, all of which have been used in the past, would possibly allow for the audience to spread out and be more comfortable. Just not the WOW factor provided by the Minster.
Back to the actual production. Trying to reduce the story of man’s history from creation through to the end of the world, meant of course that we only got snippets of the biblical story. Noah and the Flood provided the best entertainment for me. Not only were there vast numbers of animals on the stage, some real, some models, all herded into the little boat, causing havoc and lots of laughs, but, because Noah’s wife refused to believe the warning, (providing some hilarious wife/husband arguments) a couple of sons finished up man-handling their rather rotund mother, tossing her up in the air and onto the Ark, just before the flood hit.
We saw most of the well known parts of the New Testament from the Nativity to the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. Jesus, played by Philip McGinley was (I think, from the information I could gather) the only paid actor. He was often in the background, which sometimes made it difficult for me to pick him out as the main character. He didn’t stand out as the star, which was unusual for a play, but I guess the real Jesus would have behaved that way, rather being too showy.
The battle between Jesus and Lucifer in the dessert was great theatre between two strong characters, both of whom were excellent actors. I wish I could show you a photo of Toby Gordon as Lucifer, with his wicked eyes. I know if I had the chance to play an evil role, this would have to be the epitome. He was scary. Philip McGinley, as Jesus, was quieter, a perfect foil to his tempter and it was only at the end of that scene, when he told the devil to not quite ‘Piss off Satin’ but you knew that was what he would say today, that he lost some of his cool.
At the end, for The Last Judgment, it looked like all the one hundred and forty five actors were on stage. The chaos and destruction portrayed in that end of the world scene was quite terrifying and I found it very confusing. The backstage crew must have been particularly busy for that scene, hoisting the good souls up, some flying above the stage, while the bad guys were tossed down below the stage. Lots of screaming, fighting and tumbling and so much noise (the percussion section of the band was very busy at that point).
I knew that these performances required lots of voluntary workers, but at the time I didn’t realise that there were two hundred and fifty behind the scenes people, or that four hundred costumes were worn each night. Because York owns the Mystery Plays, being part of the production is an honour and a privilege.
In the past the various guilds had responsibility for producing different scenes; for instance plasterers and cardmakers did the Creation and the Nativity was the responsibility of the thatchers with support from the Chandlers, Masons and Goldsmiths. The York Mystery Plays began in the 14th century so of course the local community is very proud of their efforts. One of the things that I found interesting, apart from this long history, is the fact that the language and the type of presentation has changed and evolved over the centuries, but the stories and the messages behind them are still as powerful and meaningful as ever.
Because they are a community project and because so many people love taking part in them, the same actors have in some cases, performed a variety of roles over the years. Judi Dench and her family took part during the 1950s. The same applies to all the other aspects of putting the show together — music, props, costumes, make-up, publicity, and all those young people who move the audience into position as well as moving mountains around onstage.
Just as, when one visits Sratford-on-Avon, one hopes and plans to see a Shakespearean production, or in Vienna a taste of Strauss is in order, so, if you are ever in York around late May – early June, the Mystery Plays are a ‘must see.’ If you have seen a performance, I’d love to see what you thought. Please write your comments here.