Nouse - 9 August 2012

 

York Mystery Plays 2012

 

With the sun glistening through the hallowed remains of St Mary’s Abbey, almost from the outset it seemed that there would be something slightly magical about this performance of the Mystery Plays. Fortunately, I was not left disappointed. Each word perfectly enunciated and each character charmingly conveyed, this admittedly long, yet consistently captivating piece of work was a real triumph for directors Paul Burbridge and Damian Cruden.

As tradition dictates, the Plays conveyed the familiar Biblical texts, starting with the creation of the world and leading the audience right through to the resurrection of Christ and his subsequent ‘Last Judgement’. Recorded as early as the 14th Century, the scenes were originally performed separately as fifty pageants, each one assigned to a craft guild and executed across York, with this custom replicated throughout Catholic Britain. Regrettably the convention was somewhat destroyed amongst Henry VIII’s Protestant movement, but was revived and rejuvenated in York over three centuries later as a single piece at the 1951 Festival of Britain.

This year’s performance, the first since the 1980’s, is the largest yet, involving 500 actors and 1700 volunteers, not to mention sponsors and a host of other vital contributors. Thus, the Plays see the vast creative talent of our vibrant city truly utilised with impressive results. The piece is a significant element of the York 800 celebrations, commemorating the 800 year anniversary of the granting of our city’s Royal Charter.

Particular recognition must go to Ferdinand Kingsley, playing God and Jesus, whose commanding performance set a high standard from the outset. More than just “fearsomely handsome”, as one nearby audience member shamelessly observed, Kingsley’s enduring commitment to character was notable even before the audience were all seated. His harrowing portrayal of the crucifixion specifically was brutally authentic and utterly poignant. The innocence of Eve, impeccably conveyed by Madeleine Drury, the spice and audacity of the fallen angels and the Mothers’ strife amid the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ also deserve high praise.

However, there were two further vital ingredients that made this performance so engaging. Firstly, the integrated choir, made up of local singers, added extra drama to each scene: building tension; exaggerating the clamour of crowds; pre-empting danger and strife. The rounds of ‘The Last Supper’ are particularly memorable, together with the vividly staccatoed notes of the ‘Flight to Egypt’. Secondly, the set, which as first appears rather simplistic, is a riot of frequently convenient trap doors and hidden coves which keep the audience on their toes. Props such as the oversized animals of the Garden of Eden – beautifully constructed and laden with greenery – effectively add a modern twist to the old stories.

For the people of York this piece is a part of their history and should not be missed. For those of us from further afield, it remains an exciting and charming portrayal of stories that may have become stale from years of adorable yet predictable nativity plays and monotonous Religious Education lessons. Just remember to take a blanket!

Nouse

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