Olivier award-winning playwright Mike Kenny tells Jo Haywood how he tackled the York Mystery Plays
When God is your leading man it’s important that you get his script right. Which probably explains why Mike Kenny experienced what he describes as “a few hyperventilating moments” when reinterpreting York’s iconic Mystery Plays for 2012.
He is unusual in the history of play cycle writers in that he actually lives in the city, which has proved to be something of a blessing and a curse. He already had a strong relationship with York, its history and its theatrical community though his work, most notably his massively successful production of The Railway Children, allowing him to bypass the usual getting-to-know-you stage and plough straight into the writing. But, as a fellow resident, he hasn’t been able to bypass York people with firm ideas of how their Mystery Plays should be staged.
“Lots of other people had their own grand plans though and were more than willing to share them. The funniest was when I was at the gym. This chap cornered me in the changing room to tell me about his vision of the Mystery Plays, completely oblivious to the fact that I had no clothes on. Not a stitch.”
More than 1,000 community members will be involved in staging the production and it is hoped that 28,000 people will come and watch the performances.
In other words, this is a major event for the city – and a major challenge for the man chosen to condense 14 hours of a 48-play cycle into a single three-hour production.
“I just hope I’ve got it right,” said Mike. “I’ve had my hyperventilating period, now I’m just happy my part is done. All I can hope now is that it makes sense and that the story shines through.”
The Mystery Plays were a great medieval tradition in York for centuries, providing a way of bringing religious messages to the streets of the city. In one day, at least 48 plays involving important events in Christian history were performed, starting at 4.30am with wagon parades through the streets.
It is known that the plays were being performed as a group in 1376, although there are earlier references to religious performances that predate this. The plays continued for a short time after the Reformation but were finally suppressed in 1569.
The tradition was revived in 1951, when they were performed to 26,000 people in the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. It was a huge success and the plays continued to be performed on the same site at three of four year intervals until 1988.
They were then performed at York Theatre Royal in 1992 and 1996 before being held in York Minster to celebrate the new millennium.
The 2012 York Mystery Plays are returning to the ruins of St Mary’s, but this time in a purpose-built outdoor theatre with seating for 1,400 and a canopy over the audience (yes, it’s a summer production, but this is a Yorkshire summer).
“In the past, I think audiences have gritted their teeth and pushed on through to the end of the plays,” said Mike.
“But this shouldn’t be ordeal by theatre. People definitely won’t need their ‘I survived the Mystery Plays’ badges this year.”
Any playwright presented with such a mammoth commission could be forgiven for seeing it as an opportunity to radically change what has gone before. Initially, Mike was no exception, but then he started studying the original plays and was struck by their simple yet effective storytelling.
“I thought I was going to grab the Mystery Plays and give them a good old shake, so no one was more surprised than me when I ended up sticking incredibly close to the original,” he said. “I’ve acted more as curator than writer in this instance, paring back the outer layers and scraping away more recent additions to reveal the original story.
“It’s like I stormed into church shouting ‘hey, let’s have a party’ and then got quieter and quieter because a party no longer seemed appropriate.”
Mike was raised in a Christian household but no longer practises any religion. He doesn’t think his agnosticism had any bearing on his approach to the text though.
“I don’t know if it matters whether I’m a believer or not,” he said. “I feel comfortable in that world and with the idea of a deity. If I was a confirmed atheist, I would struggle. But if I was a practising Christian with my own axe
to grind, it would also be a problem.
“You have to remember that this tradition started on the streets of York, not in the Minster. These are brilliantly human stories. More human than divine.”
His script is long finished and in the technical stage of production. Mike’s role from now on is as an interested observer, which allows him to take a step back and enjoy the Mystery Plays as a York resident, with all the benefits that entails.
“The Mystery Plays are a piece of world heritage,” he said. “This is people’s art that should have the same status as the minster itself. And the people of York own this incredible work of art. It belongs to them – to us. How amazing is that?”
York Mystery Plays needs a host of angels to ensure its success. You don’t need wings and a halo though, just £150 and a generous nature.
“By becoming an angel you are pledging your support to the biggest cultural event in York in 2012,” said Liz Wilson, chief executive officer of York Theatre Royal. “In return, you will receive unique privileges including access to the VIP area and the chance to meet key people involved.”
All money raised will be used in the production of this not-for-profit community project – the biggest the region has witnessed for a decade.
York Mystery Plays angels will receive: two performance tickets in the best seats available; access to the VIP hospitality area; acknowledgement in the official programme; two free programmes; and invitations to rehearsals and special events.
To find out more, visit yorkmysteryplays2012.com.
The Duke of York said he was honoured to have been invited to return as patron of the Mystery Plays, a role he previously filled in 2000, adding: “I have been impressed by the scale and ambition of the project and how new partnerships have been formed between organisations and businesses across the city.
“I am looking forward to seeing for myself what we will surely be one of the cultural highlights of 2012.”
Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said: “This is a very exciting project and will provide a wonderful spectacle for the city. As you prepare to tell the story of God at work in Creation and Redemptions, I pray that you will be inspired by the majesty of the story, and that others will be encouraged in faith and hope.”
Dame Judi Dench, who is originally from York, said: “Having performed in the York Mystery Plays three times, I know the excitement that these events bring to the people of York and the important place they hold within the city’s history.
“When I heard the Mystery Plays were returning to Museum Gardens and the scale and ambition which the organisers have for the production, I was honoured to become patron.
“I urge you to get involved with the York Mystery Plays 2012 and experience the magic of creating theatre with your own community. It is something I will always remember.”