Review: York Mystery Plays 2012

10 Aug 2012 @ 6.29 pm
| Entertainment
Go if you can… Ferdinand Kingsley as Jesus in York Mystery Plays 2012. Photograph: Steven Parker, York Theatre Royal

An evening of wonderful, magical theatre

Go see this spectacular community event – you’ll kick yourself if you miss the mysteries, says Julia Kelpie

It makes you proud to live in York! How lucky we are to have such a creative mix of culture, history and talent on our doorstep. After seeing York’s Mystery Plays, we floated home on a high of excitement.

[column width=”65%” padding=”5%”]And we were so lucky with the weather. At 9pm most of the audience were still in T-shirts. Though, as hardy and well-prepared Brits, we had, of course, all come laden with rugs, cushions, flasks, waterproofs and extra jumpers – prepared for the worst that our summer weather could throw at us.[/column][column width=”30%” padding=”0″]


But in the event it was a glorious balmy summer evening – the sort you take for granted if you live in France or Italy. And although all of the 1,400 seats were under cover (and almost all filled on the night we went) the choir and cast have no such luxury.

Despite the roofing, when the stage thunder rumbled and the sound of torrential rain was heard for the Noah’s Ark scene, as one body we instinctively looked up at the sky with apprehension and resignation. A couple of nights earlier, Jesus hadn’t been crucified on the cross so much as drowned.

It was clear that the cast loved being involved (especially in the stoning scene – well, who wouldn’t?). They gave their all, enthusiastic amateurs rubbing shoulders with the professionals in a vibrant performance filled with a real sense of community and pride.

Overall, there are around 2,500 people involved, some 1,200 of whom are volunteers – equalling York City’s average home attendance. There are two complete casts (more than 500 people, including the choir). They span the generations, from older folk gently pottering and pruning in the Garden of Eden, to a little girl who simply couldn’t restrain herself from skipping joyfully off into the wings to avoid the Flood.

A community production. Photograph: John R Saunders, York Theatre Royal

It’s been the chance of a lifetime to get involved with a snapshot of history. The earliest known performance took place first back in 1376 but they probably began even earlier. York’s own Judi Dench was involved as an amateur performer in the first three productions of the modern revival of the York Mystery Plays in the 1950s.

This event is a true piece of community theatre. It seemed as if everyone in the audience was craning their neck to look for a son, daughter, neighbour or workmate somewhere on the vast 357 square metres of stage. For us, there was the thrill of spotting our friend’s grandson, Rob Paterson, in the role of a soldier. We saw him wielding a bayonet, showing alarming bloodlust for a vicar’s grandson!

Rob played Aaron in Coram’s Boy in the recent Theatre Royal production and has been chosen to play Lyra’s daemon, Pan, in their forthcoming adaptation of His Dark Materials. Well, if Judi Dench can start off as an angel, progress to playing the Virgin Mary – and end up as Head of MI6…

Such was the monumental scale of the production and the huge part played by the army of amateur actors, that one might be forgiven for almost forgetting the excellent job done by the two professional actors at the helm. Ferdinand Kingsley played God and Jesus.

It was a stroke of genius to have one actor play these two roles. It worked perfectly – so well that you can’t believe no one had ever thought to combine the roles before. Like bread and butter or cheese and wine.

Graeme Hawley is instantly identifiable as Coronation Street bad boy, John Stape. His personable Lucifer was delivered with humour and great physicality.

Indeed, he presented the plausible, acceptable face of evil and you could quite understand how Eve was persuaded into picking that damn apple.

Acceptable face of evil: Graeme Hawley as the devil. Photograph: John R Saunders, York Theatre Royal

It was my first Mystery Play since the 1970s – I didn’t see the highly-acclaimed Millennium performances in the Minster and have kicked myself ever since, so was determined not to miss out again this time: the first large scale performance since then, and back again in the Museum Gardens with the ruined arches of St Mary’s Abbey forming the spectacular backdrop.

The Olivier award-winning team behind this production have done a stunning job. Living in the UK’s post-Christian society, where the Church of England’s congregations are declining, our knowledge of the Bible and its stories is waning too.

The challenge now is to produce scenes that would have been instantly recognisable to previous generations but are virtually unknown to many of today’s audience. It was tackled head-on with clever and effective use of colour and symbolism, and some wonderfully ingenious props: the dove and the raven flying gracefully; the Garden of Eden topiary; the construction of the Ark; Mary’s apron for the immaculate conception and the birth; the sea of umbrellas; the rainbow…

The medieval language presents another challenge. I was reminded of great Shakespearean actors – Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh came to mind – who can deliver unfamiliar phrases so beautifully that we are somehow able to understand the meaning, even though the words make little sense. Anna Robinson, who played Young Eve, was one of several in the cast who had that gift.

And – without giving too much of the plot away – here’s a tip: ‘mickle’ means ‘a large amount; much’.

This timeless story has been brought up to date for modern times, but only gained in the telling. The analogy with the Second World War was poignant and clever. Clever. That word echoed through my mind throughout the performance.

Jesus still had 12 disciples – but six were women. Think of the agonies today’s Anglican Bishops would have been spared had that actually been the case 2,000 years ago. (And how useful that there were female disciples to tidy away the tablecloth neatly after the Last Supper, and fold up Jesus’ shroud after his crucifixion!)

The staging was so impressive and impactful (and, yes, clever), it seems churlish to mention Jesus’ cross, which was directly in front of our seats for a significant part of the second half. Thereafter, in scenes reminiscent of a Wimbledon final, a section of the audience swayed from side to side as one, according to which side of the stage the action was taking place.

Flooded with colour. Photograph: Allan Harris, York Theatre Royal

We were so caught up in the three-hour telling of ‘the greatest story ever told’ that the evening really was almost over before we knew it.

The tickets aren’t cheap – ranging from £12 (concessions) to £42, but the feelgood factor will stay with you. Just as the nation is being caught up in a sense of pride with the London Olympics, so the Mystery Plays are doing the same for York.

They are attracting tourists and deservedly so, helping to give our local economy a much-needed boost – of cash and of morale. Long may they continue.

Do join more than 36,000 others and go if you can. There are some laughs, and there are moments of great poignancy. It is wonderful theatre.

We can feel proud of living somewhere where amateurs can work with professionals to produce something quite so magical. Like me, you will kick yourself if you don’t.

Excellent: Ferdinand Kingsley played God and Jesus. Photograph: Steven Parker, York Theatre Royal

In paradise: Ewan Croft and Anna Robinson as Adam and Eve. Photograph: Kippa Matthews, York Theatre Royal