Morning Star - 14 August 2012 

Susan Darlington

 

York Mystery Plays 2012

 

Billed as the country's biggest outdoor theatre event this year, the resurrected York Mystery Plays are epic both in subject and form.

Featuring an army of 1,500 volunteers, the joint production by York Theatre Royal, Riding Lights Theatre Company and York Museums Trust tells 32 of the Bible's greatest hits over the course of three hours.

Adapted by acclaimed children's playwright Mike Kenny, it honours tradition with rhyming couplets but also updates the play cycle in subtle ways that make it more relevant for a modern, secular audience.

The most immediate break from purely historical drama is the decision to dress the cast in 1940s costume, thus women in the ensemble don aprons and headscarves while God/Jesus (Ferdinand Kingsley) is a rakish Doctor Who in mid-length overcoat.

The modernisation is also present in the style of uniforms and terrifying gunshots that punctuate the arrest and trial of Jesus, overtly referencing World War II.

In addition, many of the key support roles are played by women of all ages, including the Angel Gabriel and the shepherds.

There are also moments of humour, with Noah's spouse being recast as a sceptic straight out of Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife. A carnival-esque atmosphere is created by the presence of a community brass band, together with a choir, the live music providing levity or gravitas where appropriate.

Sean Cavanagh's set design is equally modern - a wooden, tiered stage that nestles into the ruins of St Mary's Abbey and which is gradually opened to reveal all manner of tricks, including an Edenic water feature, a flaming torch, trapdoors that engulf fallen angels and billowing dry ice.

It's a stunning efficiency that's reflected by the prop handling - Noah's flat-pack ark, for instance, is buckled together and floats on an undulating sea of umbrellas, and foliage animals festooned with fruit are wheeled onstage to form the Garden of Eden.

With such a large community cast and only two professional actors - Kingsley and Graeme Hawley playing the Devil - it's inevitable that some lines are slightly gabbled or lacking in passion.

But the vast majority bring palpable enthusiasm and some real value to the production.

Morning Star

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