“Don’t you bother to blather no more!”
How do you go about reviving plays written several centuries before Shakespeare was born? Many medieval towns had sequences of ‘mystery plays’ based on stories in the Bible. Of the few to survive, there is York and also Chester. But the two cities approached things differently this year. Where Chester condensed human and sacred history into a single performance in a cathedral, York kept the original plays intact, handed them over to different community groups, and did them outside at different points around the town.
At the bedrock of medieval Christianity is the belief that the events of the Old Testament are repeated in the New. This York staging foregrounds these echoes so, after we’ve watched the Creation, we see the Annunciation; we get two ‘betrayal’ plays (Cain and Abel, the Remorse of Judas), and so on. We’re still heading for the Last Judgement but this way we see the patterns of history more clearly.
This does de-centre Jesus – we’re only allowed two episodes from his earthly life, Temptation and Crucifixion. But that in turn gives more room for other Biblical stories to grip. Mothers lament over dead children. A father faces killing his son. A people are released from bondage. And more familiar stories contain narrative twists and turns as well as refreshing modern takes. The Crucifixion begins with a practical, if gruesome, bit of engineering as Jesus is made fast on the cross and hoisted up by four Yorkshire workmen. Cain, surveying the ten sheaves he was going to sacrifice to God, finds (after a comically drawn-out process of inspection and prevarication) that nine are too good to waste. The smoke from the rubbish tenth sheaf nearly chokes him, divine displeasure meaning something in those days. Mary, in grey hoodie and school tie, is horrified to be told by some random white-clad figure that she will be pregnant very soon. A Yorkshire-accented God, in golden mask, surveys his handiwork at the end of each day’s creation creating the world while sipping from a gold thermos.
Some plays are revelations. There is a whole play devoted to Judas making increasingly desperate offers to Pilate to save Jesus’s life. Who knew? But it is genuinely moving, not least because as Judas’s final gambit fails, his every agitated move is copied and mocked by the devil who has been watching all along, and who hands him, while mocking, the rope with which he will kill himself. The York St John University players provide one of the most imaginative and technically accomplished productions with set, costumes, ensemble and lead performances all extremely strong. Harry Murdoch’s Judas and Bronte Hobson’s Pilate were highlights of the day.
At the other end of the scale is Adam and Eve as you’ve never seen them, performed by GCSE students at the Vale of York Academy. Kelly Docker’s Satan uses a glove puppet snake to highlight the naivety of Adam and Eve. Having eaten the fruit, they are then brought face to face with God. That’s God (Year 7), in the shape of Eve Clark, who subjects Adam and Eve to the kind of eye-rolling condescension perfected the world over by little sisters, her last word after banishing Adam and Eve from Paradise being an exasperated sigh.
St Luke’s Church York give it their best Cecil B. DeMille with Moses and Pharaoh. One of the great attractions of watching a sequence like this is the variety of ways in which different groups make sense of the medieval York folk’s interpretation of their religion’s stories. Incidentally, if you ever need to pin down whether you’re speaking to someone from Yorkshire, ask them to say ‘Moses’.
Past and future mingle; the apocalypse is nigh, and it’s Judgement Day. Who are you gonna call? East Yorkshire’s finest Steampunk Morris side, Ravens Morris, that’s who. The End of All Things is a visual treat. Most of the souls being judged wear bridal dresses, a reminder of the biblical portrayal of Christ as bridegroom, but there’s enough hats and gogglesto revitalise the visual cliché. Like many of the other plays, the comic, the ironic, the grotesque, and the deadly serious shake hands. Julian Finnegan’s Jesus is a marvellous still point amid the chaos.
The problem with reviewing eleven 20-minute plays is you can’t fit it all in. I haven’t even got into my favourite visuals of the day. If you want wonderful singing (religious and secular), get yourself along. If you want to see just how 500 people can, individually and collectively, put themselves into stories told for thousands of years in thousands of places, then the York Mysteries are there for you.
(Main image: The Crucifixion, performed by the Butchers Gild; directed by Katie Smith. L to R: Jennie Wogan (Longinus), Tony Froud (Livia), Maurice Crichton (Crassus), Will Darwin (Brutus), Credit: Lewis Outing)
The York Mystery Plays are on until September 16. Click here for more details.