– 25 August 2012

Pauline Flannery


York Mystery Plays 2012

5 Stars

As the sun sets on Danny Boyle’s Olympic Dreams, the people of York are stealing a bit of London pride. For while York celebrates 800 years under Royal Charter, 1212, its Mystery Plays are synonymous with a civic pride which date from 1399.

The York Mystery Plays take us from the Creation and Nativity to the Passion and Final Judgement. The cast teams - The Potters and The Carpenters – numbering five hundred townspeople, ranging from three to eighty plus, perform on alternate nights. Yet focus attention on the fifty or so guilds who would have staged these scenes originally in the fourteenth century; such as The Shipwrights’ Noah and the Flood or The bakers’ The Last supper.

Set outside in the St Mary’s Abbey ruins the atmosphere is electric. A multi-layered, slate-grey set of platforms with hidden reveals, trap-doors, dominates. It’s an impressive piece of architecture. It is off-set by the Abbey’s arched walls, a huge playing area measuring 17m by 24m and an audience on three sides. While directors Paul Burbridge and Damian Cruden cleverly juxtapose the grand and the small, as be-fits the ‘greatest story ever told.’

Writer Michael Kenny’s focus is the conflict between the figures of God/Jesus and Satan. Yet it’s God’s attempts to try again when ideas fail which propels the human drama forward. The plot, structured from The Bible, and as night descends, the Apocrypha, secures Kenny’s objective: ‘to curate for the twenty-first century….to tell the Christian story of the world by the community of York.’ Both give a theatrical, compelling account by maximising a percussive, alliterative text - ‘ban the bones that him bare’ …..‘of mourning mend thy mood’….’find and fang’….’roil and rave’ – in a propulsive Yorkshire dialect.

Adam and Eve are Ovaltineys. The Garden of Eden is made up of ingenious, mobile, topiaried- animals, wheel-barrowed on by folk straight out of an English Country Garden. The progress of Noah’s ark with its intimate family scenes, is surrounded by a human mass with umbrellas who make up the swelling seas. The simplicity of the Nativity’s staging, summed up as a cart, a bale, a suitcase, a crate, a birth, surrounded by the grandeur of Herod’s court, is signified by a border of red material. In Arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane the topiaried animals are replaced by skeleton sticks. The trestle-type tables in The Last Supperbecome the wood of the cross. All is a theatrical palimpsest. All is post-war ingenuity and thrift.

The overall conceptual design by Sean Cavanagh is influenced by twentieth century artist Stanley Spencer who created the ‘momentous among the ordinary.’ Yet the presence of Post-War Britain is strong throughout, particularly in a growing, utilitarian attitude. It echoes the spirit of the original mystery plays; captured here in the tightly choreographed ensemble scenes and detailed costumes.

The York Mystery Plays is a visual treat, superbly lit by Richard G Jones who takes full advantage of the outdoor setting and night’s advancing shadows. An eclectism picked up in Christopher Madin’s commissioned score featuring two choirs, a brass band, folk-song and musical dialect. Ferdinand Kingsley as God/Jesus and Graeme Hawley as Satan are exemplary adversaries in pace and energy. The ultimate stars are the people of York.

Today, legacy is the by-word whether as avid Olympics’ follower or Twenty-Twelve watcher. The York Mystery Plays are the first live community performance texts. 2012 sets out to re-kindle this outdoor tradition at St Mary’s Abbey. It also redresses a gender imbalance. Women feature in a range of male-dominated roles, most strikingly as one of the condemned thieves in The Crucifixion. Liam Evans-Ford, Community Producer, hopes many of the under 25 participants will work on the next cycle of mystery plays. It’s hard to know how it could top 2012 for logistics, creativity and sense of community. Yet history proves that each company produces something which speaks to its age. This is the most enduring legacy of all.

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