The Public Reviews - 10 August 2012

Rosie Revell


York Mystery Plays 2012

4 Stars


In keeping with York Theatre Royal’s tradition of ground breaking, unique and totally memorable productions, more than 36,000 people are set to experience the North’s most spectacular piece of theatre this summer. Last staged here in 1988 the York Mystery Plays have returned to the impressive ruins of St Mary’s Abbey in the museum gardens. It’s a huge undertaking for all involved and there’s an incredible number of people who have taken part, 1700 plus locals, at the last count, as well as a large professional team from York Theatre Royal and Riding Lights Theatre Company. The cast is 500 strong led by two professional actors; Ferdinand Kingsley and Graeme Hawley playing God/Jesus and the Devil respectively.

The mystery plays date back to 1399 and are a unique living popular theatrical tradition that were originally performed as short religious pageants in open air wagons on Corpus Christi day. They were performed by different craft guilds who owned their own pageant. In keeping with this tradition York playwright Mike Kenny has had the unenviable task of creating the script from 48 individual 20-30 minute plays. He has done a fantastic job and has incorporated 32 plays into this 3 hour spectacular.

The plot is complex but familiar as only Bible stories can be. It is quite simply God’s story. God make the heavens and the universe but didn’t predict man’s progress and the mistakes he would make. God keeps wiping the slate clean in increasingly brutal ways (the flood) but in the end incarnates himself as Christ. It is only when he is on the cross that he can understand and forgive humanity.

Sean Cavanagh has created an impressive yet very simple set which merges with the Abbey ruins beautifully. The delineation between heavens, earth and bowels of hell is simple yet striking. The 500 strong cast use every inch of stage to wonderful effect. There is so much to look at. Anna Gooch’s 1940’s inspired costumes anchor the plays in a World War 2- like setting and add to the overall special effect. The main cast’s drab clothing a wonderful contrast to the jewel colours of the heavenly hosts.

The 100 strong choir is a wonderful accompaniment providing beautiful angelic harmonies. Composer Christopher Madin has created a unique score, totally in keeping with the theme and incorporating a brass band to amazing effect. The most impressive effect came naturally as the sun set over the ruins, a beautiful sight during the Annunciation of Mary whilst the women memorably washed blood stains away into pure white linen.

Ferdinand Kingsley (Jesus/God) is impressive and commands in his dual role as does Graeme Hawley (Devil). It’s a shame that Hawley’s Devil feels a little underused. He stalks the periphery in suitably menacing style but is not able to get his teeth into the role.

The historically correct dialogue has been modernised where needed but it is still very complex. In turns it is touching, compelling, humorous and shocking. Its complex nature often meant that with all the action on the stage it was occasionally lost and unclear which of the cast actually said it. This sometimes made it hard to follow the action. On more than one occasion microphones cut out or came in late which did not help with this feeling of confusion.

The York Mystery Plays are amazingly staged and very impressive productions. Director’s Damian Cruden and Paul Burbridge and the whole team have created something special, memorable, unique and totally belonging to the people of York.

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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.