The York ‘Mystery Plays’, based on a medieval cycle of some 50 playlets originally performed on carts by working men’s guilds, now happen once every four years. 2012 is the year, and given other anniversaries and events - the Jubilee, the Olympics, and not least the 800th anniversary of the granting of York city charter - it was always likely that this production of the Mystery Plays would be a big event, to rival that of the millennium in 2000, and so it is.
But it's very different in character. 2000 was pure spectacle; in York Minster, how could it be otherwise, the church demonstrating the grandeur and glory of the familiar biblical tales. In the current production, the people have reclaimed the plays, which were after all first performed by working men. They are busy and bustling, full of folk, some very young, some (dare I say?) very old, some disabled, some immigrant, and with a better balance of the sexes than the Bible offers – two of the shepherds, for example, and one of the three wise ‘men’, were women.
God and Jesus are both played by Ferdinand Kingsley, and the Devil by (Coronation Street arch villain) Graeme Hawley. The rest of the cast are local amateurs, no less than 250 of them (well actually 500 of them, as two groups perform on different nights). There are so many small parts that it seems invidious to mention just a few, but I particularly enjoyed Noah and Joseph. A troop of angels (what is the right collective noun?) was on stage most of the time, not wing or white robe in sight, with flowing skirts in bright colours, and pill box hats, rather like dancing dervishes. The casting of a short black woman as the Archangel Gabriel defied all convention and was masterly. If there is slight confusion in the mass entrances and exits now and then, forget it, this is a magnificent feat of organisation and local enthusiasm, bang on to the original intention of the plays.
The ruined wall of St Mary’s Abbey, beautifully lit, forms the backdrop to a huge square stage, open to the sky. Some stairs and boxes are the only fixed scenery, the rest (gardens, ark, crosses) is dragged on and off by the players.
‘In keeping with York tradition’, the programme tell us, ‘this production uses the medieval text, in a new version lightly modernised for understanding where necessary’. Notwithstanding the ‘light modernisation’ and a glossary in the programme, some of the words were difficult to follow, and the acoustics of a large open space didn’t help. But it didn’t really matter; the stories are not exactly unfamiliar, even in these secular times.
Perhaps it is unfair to a brilliant production to mention one particular magic moment that was not rehearsed: a flock of large birds flew across the open sky, in the dark, and were lit from below by the white lights on the stage. As close to a conventional angel as I am ever likely to see.
A few practical points. This show lasts three and a half hours, take a cushion to put between yourself and the hard seat, and something warm to cover your knees if you feel the cold. Even on a balmy summer evening, it was chilly once the sun had gone down. A flask of coffee would have been a good idea. If you haven’t yet booked, go for the middle rows: the seats are raked so the view will be ok and I’m not convinced that the front few rows would remain dry if the weather was both wet and windy. The Park and Ride at Rawcliffe Bar remains open till late every evening specifically for the plays.
Join us at the Visit York Tourism Awards!
Mon 15 Apr 2013
Were you a York Mystery Plays 2012 volunteer? Do you want to join us at the Visit York Tourism Awards 2013?
2012 Production Nominated For 2 Awards
Wed 20 Mar 2013
The Visit York 2013 Award nominations have been announced with York Mystery Plays 2012 up for 2 titles.
York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust formed
Fri 01 Feb 2013
A group of people involved in York Mystery Plays 2012 launch a new group to support future productions.
York Mystery Plays 2012 shortlisted for award
Thu 27 Sep 2012
The marketing campaign for the York Mystery Plays 2012 has been shortlisted for a prestigious TMA award.