Review: Chester Mystery Plays, Chester Cathedral
Most of the surviving mystery plays come from the North. Mystery doesn’t just mean divine mystery, it’s also an old word for ‘craft’ because craft guilds in various towns put on plays which became both a celebration of God and the trades of the area.
In some cases, this was literal: in Chester, the Noah play was staged by the guild responsible for supplying water, and the last supper was looked after by the bakers and grocers. In York, the crucifixion was organised by the nailmakers’ guild. All this came to an end in the 1570s, the plays’ historic associations making them suspect in a newly Protestant age, before York and Chester revived them in 1951 in the wake of the Festival of Britain.
Writer Deborah McAndrew’s script, which effectively edits down the original 23 plays, sticks closely to the alliterative and rhyming language of the early texts. This takes a bit of getting used to but throws up some unexpected gems such as a certain noisy troublemaker being referred to dismissively as “jangling Jesus”. McAndrew also has an eye for contemporary relevance, with the climate catastrophe engulfing Noah’s world echoed in later episodes. Cain haunts the play as the bringer of war and destruction, which is brought to a head by the same actor playing the Antichrist at the play’s end.
So this is The Greatest Story Ever Told but medieval rather than Hollywood style. That knotty old vernacular helps keep this an English play. There’s reverence, yes, but there’s no Los Angeles ‘Truly-this-mahn-was-the-son-of-Gahd’ sentimentality here (remember those nailmakers). The Magi are beaten to the punch by a gang of shepherds, turning out their pockets for random gifts to the infant Jesus (my favourite was the shepherd who gave him a pair of his wife’s old socks). Noah’s wife is too busy bevvying and gossiping to bother with the ark and clonks him one in annoyance when he gets her aboard. But the local is the global. The familiar outlines of Jesus’s story are part of a global history of everything, beginning with creation and ending with the coming of Antichrist and the last judgement – cued by the appearance of St John bearing, yep, a scythe. It ain’t over till it’s over.
It’s a local production in another way. All the cast are amateurs. The animal puppets in the creation and ark scenes are handled by small children so, at times, it has all the charm of a school play. Local primary schools helped with the props. The cast numbers hundreds of locals, carrying on a tradition of modern Chester mysteries which now goes back nearly 70 years, before you even start thinking about its medieval roots in the streets they walk every day. There’s a context here you don’t see with the ever-changing casts of many producing theatres. This production is truly the child of the city.
There are some strong acting performances – particularly Nick Sherratt as Jesus, William Wood as God the father, Becca Gates-Patch as Lucifer, Jennifer Jackson as Pilate, and Sam Baker as Cain and the Antichrist. Artistic director Peter Leslie Wild welds his huge cast into a tight ensemble. Dawn Allsop’s design gives us a flexible stage which encompasses heaven, hell, the crucifixion and huge, rowdy crowd scenes.
The show works as a celebration of a community, but perhaps the real star is the cathedral and its wonderful visual and aural opportunities. The solo and choral singing is at times out of this world. Musical director and composer Matt Baker makes the most of the incredible acoustics, running the gamut from affecting vocal solos to total cacophony. The space, too, is amazing. I’ve never been inside at a show with a look like this. The upper half of the cathedral lets in glorious shared summer sunshine. Its great slabs of walls and pillars take light superbly. Chris Davey’s designs for this make superb use of angles and colour for intimate moments and epic clashes alike.
My companion for the evening, not a regular theatregoer, said at the end that “there’s something for everyone in this”. The music is wonderful and the whole production is clearly a labour of love for its huge, multi-generational cast who are sensitively deployed by the professionals behind the scenes. And as theatre? Well, the final image of the first half makes its point about Jesus being the only survivor of Herod’s massacre of the innocents in a way I defy you to forget. Get yourself down there.
(Main image: Chester Mystery Plays 2018, Mark Carline)
Chester Mystery Plays is on at Chester Cathedral until July 14, 2018. For more information, click here.
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