York Mystery Plays: a technical, technicolor marvel

10 Aug 2012 @ 7.36 pm
| Entertainment

The staging is an astonishing feat. Photograph: Alan Fleming, York Theatre Royal
It’s not only the cast who deserve plaudits: it’s the behind-the-scenes team for designing, creating and making the Mystery Plays, says Gavin Mist

Not performed as a full production since the Millennium year in 2000, the plays have returned to what many would say is their rightful place in the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey in the Museum Gardens after a break of 24 years.

It promised to be a spectacular production involving a huge cast of York people on a big stage in an historical open setting. It didn’t disappoint on any count. Just go and see it and enjoy!

I don’t want to give away too much and spoil the surprise for those who haven’t yet been, but I’d like to mention the staging and production aspects. The pre-publicity has made much of the scale of the production (“the biggest outdoor theatre production in the UK this year”) and this scale certainly impresses when you first walk in.

There is a vast open space in the centre, surrounded on three sides by the audience seating. The stage then rises, in a series of platforms up to and within the windows of the abbey ruin.

At each side of the platforms are staging for the two choirs who are present throughout the production. Only when the story gets underway does the true ingenuity of the set present itself for the open space in the middle is a deck above another, unseen, area below. Trap doors and dropping sections open and we see glimpses of light and action: sometimes Hell, sometimes the teeming nightlife in Bethlehem.

Other traps open to reveal the waters of the River Jordan where the bloodstained clothes of slaughtered men are washed and Jesus is baptised. Characters also arrive and leave the stage through the trap doors and, as you often don’t know where they’re going to appear or even notice their appearance in crowd scenes, the whole thing has an incredibly dynamic feel.

Jesus in the temple. Photograph: Alan Fleming, York Theatre Royal

The rising platforms at the back of the set are also used to great effect. They represent Heaven and are occupied by the omni-present, colourful Angels. At the very top of the view are two arches of the Abbey’s windows which are used as entrance and exit points for God, the Devil and the Angels. They are also used to visually stunning effect in the “Harrowing of Hell” scene.

Rising from the rear stage section is a metal sculpture topped by an open globe representing the Sun and the heavens. Flame spouts from the globe and the allusion to the Olympic Cauldron was hard to miss.

Props are used sparingly but to great effect: the raven and dove sent out by Noah, for example, are kites attached to a long pole. The star of Bethlehem is similarly carried, its internal lighting giving it a lovely radiance. Noah’s Ark was skilfully assembled and ‘floated’ away on a sea of umbrellas – brilliant!

The topiary Garden of Eden gave a very English feel to Paradise – the more so when some characters arrived on stage riding bicycles. At the other end of the emotional scale, the crucifixion is staged very cleverly and the terrible brutality of the process is conveyed to shocking effect. Once Jesus’ cross was up, it then blocked our view of some of the action in the closing scenes but that’s a minor carp.

Lighting and sound are excellent. Clearly, the imaginative lighting could be best appreciated as the evening darkened. The speaking actors have microphones so speech is generally easy to hear through the loudspeaker system suspended above the seating areas.

The only slightly disconcerting aspect of this is that it removes any directivity of the voices so sometimes it was hard to tell where a character was on stage when they started speaking. Mike Kenny’s script has adapted much of the medieval language to make it more understandable to modern ears but sometimes it’s still a little hard to follow, especially if your bible knowledge isn’t up to scratch.

Having said that, those few moments of language doubt are more than compensated for by the sheer skill in the storytelling by the actors and staging.

Christopher Madin’s music nicely complemented the production. The Angels danced to some enchantingly exotic sounds. The two choirs sang well and the brass band elements were enjoyable too.

Lighting, set, sound, costume: all add to the Mystery magic. Photograph: Alan Fleming

I was particularly struck by some Klesmer-like passages that emphasised the Jewish aspects of the story. After the “Massacre of the Innocents” scene there was a poignant and beautifully sung solo setting of the Agnus Dei: a breathtaking conclusion to the first act.

Over 3,000 items of costume are apparently involved in the production. Anna Gooch’s designs put the action in 1940s Europe and the parallels of the plight of Jews at that time with those of Christ’s were clear to see.

Herod and Pilate are dressed in appropriately dictatorial style supported by black-shirted soldiers. The Angels appear not in white, as might be expected, but in bright rainbow colours.

In fact “colourful” would be a good way to describe this production as a whole. As a way of telling the “greatest story ever told” it’s compelling as well as being a visual and aural treat. In short, a great experience. Don’t miss it.