One & Other - 10 August 2012

Julia Parry


York Mystery Plays 2012


In a time of increasing atheism and a statistical deterioration of Christianity, it may have seemed like a brave time to bring back such a tradition as The Mystery Plays. What is however apparent is that personal belief has very little to do with the spectacle and community of this historic melodrama. The timeless show witnessed last night in the Museum Gardens was as stunning and moving as watching the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games; albeit scaled down to the size of a small city rather than that of a nation, Yorkshire’s pride in its history overflowed.

It is likely that 800 years ago when York bought its Royal Charter for £200 and three horses from the King on 9 July 1212 that Mystery Plays were being performed; they were a great medieval tradition in York, a way of bringing religious messages to the people during the Feast of Corpus Christi (60 days after Easter), an abundant medieval festival and celebration.

In one day at least 48 different plays were performed; the great moments in Christian history were presented at twelve special locations on the streets marked by the city banners. In medieval English the Latin ministerium means a ‘trade’ or ‘craft’. Craftsmen’s guilds (the performers) were known as ‘mysteries’. The word can also mean a religious truth or rite or act; in this sense both the craftsmen and the plays they acted out were unified.

A story most fitting for each guild would be performed, i.e. the shipwrights presented Noah’s Ark, the vintners acted out the marriage of Cana and Christ turning the water into wine. More morbid associations were the metal pinners nailing Christ to the cross and the butchers performing his death.

The plays continued until just after the Reformation in 1569. It was not until 1951 that they were revived and staged for the first time in the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey in the Museum Gardens. The previous production to be staged in this location was in 1988.

Travelling forward to 2012 and what is billed as ‘The biggest outdoor theatre production in the UK this year’. St Mary’s Abbey ruins again forms the backdrop, last night stunningly highlighted by a magnificent sunset and wonderful pink sky illuminating the dramatic setting even more.

York Mystery Plays 2012 have been brought to life by York Theatre Royal, Riding Lights Theatre Company and York Museums Trust. The awesome task of adapting the original working of the plays fell to Mike Kenny, the Olivier Award winning writer. The complex Direction of over 500 people from York was under the supervision of Damian Cruden and Paul Burbridge. The music was an essential addition to the performance; a local community choir beautifully highlighted the acting and the community brass band were an integral part of the plays. This year the three hour performance draws on material from 32 of the 48 original plays in the York Cycle of Mystery Plays.

The inspiration behind this year’s stunning production was taken from the 20th C artist Stanley Spencer whose biblical paintings were placed in contemporary settings, as the plays were revived in 1951 it was thought appropriate to stage this year’s play in that era, dressing the cast accordingly. In charge of design are Sean Cavanagh and Anna Gooch.

One of the show stealers of the piece is the set alone. Underneath the stage space is cleverly utilised to great effect; from the dramatic gates of hell to the baptism of Christ. The work involved in designing the 3,250 individual costumes is awe inspiring. The Garden of Eden was cheerfully wheeled in on wooden wheelbarrows and consisted of a garden full of topiary animals – stunning! Noah’s Ark was built on stage and the flood was depicted by a stage full of people holding umbrellas, seamlessly becoming the flood water with the ark bobbing along on the top.

The 500+ York residents did their city proud with their total immersion, enthusiasm and terrific professionalism, their passion and belief peppered with delightful touches of humour were spectacular. Ferdinand Kingsley playing both God and Jesus was perfect for the roles, commanding, humble and truly majestic. His crucifixion scene was all the more shocking as the audience were so close to the action, we became part of the voyeuristic mob.

The story resonates today as it did 800 years ago, humanity will always relate to the basic lessons of right and wrong regardless of the era we happen to live in.

Very rarely do you get to see a spectacle such as this. The magnitude, spirit and passion behind the piece was awe inspiring and it became elevated beyond theatre. Every ingredient and minute of hard work spent toward achieving The Mystery Plays is evident, not only in the professionalism of the volunteers but the visible, aching heart of this beautiful array.

One & Other

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Recent News

Join us at the Visit York Tourism Awards!

Join us at the Visit York Tourism Awards!
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

2012 Production Nominated For 2 Awards
The Visit York 2013 Award nominations have been announced with York Mystery Plays 2012 up for 2 titles.

York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust formed

York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust formed
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

York Mystery Plays 2012 shortlisted for award
The marketing campaign for the York Mystery Plays 2012 has been shortlisted for a prestigious TMA award.