Reviews Gate - 20th August 2012

Timothy Ramsden

 

Grand-scale epic storytelling


Since York’s medieval Mystery Plays were resurrected in the1950s they’ve been staged in the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, carted round the streets as originally intended and even crushed within the Theatre Royal’s walls.

It’s back to the Abbey this year, with a raised stage built over the ground, allowing trapdoors to and from Hell in this theatrically sophisticated staging – while awnings over the banks of seating round three sides of the acting space protect ticket-buyers against British summer climes.

Directors Paul Burbridge and Damian Cruden, of co-producing Riding Lights Theatre and York Theatre Royal, have assembled two mass community casts, filling the large stage, alongside professional actors Ferdinand Kingsley and Graeme Hawley. Kingsley’s doubling of God and Jesus has theological point, and fits the interpretation of a God less self-certain than the script suggests. Seen first alone, chalking-out patterns, he clearly wants to create something, starting with a rainbow of Angels before a garden with Adam and Eve.

They’re played by young actors till persuaded to disobedience. At which innocence ends and adults take over, their quarrel like people in a failing marriage. From here events skate (a full York cycle would take a full day) to the Flood. Noah’s Ark gives little chance for his construction skills, and no sooner has the Flood subsided than humanity’s second wave goes more wildly wrong than the first, erupting into violence and war.

The focus is on God’s ultimate solution – becoming human and dying for mankind. There are thematically significant stage images – the Holy Family in the centre while Herod parades round the edges on carpets; the mass bereavement of mothers as Joseph and his family plod humbly to Egypt. Later, the three crosses stand stark against the sky, while Christopher Madin’s music, often setting the Mass, and using repeated phrases, makes its point as the minor key accompanying Jesus’ Deposition from he Cross, changes to a happier harmony.

There’s a fine clatter as the huge bars holding people prisoners in Hell clatter to the floor during the Harrowing, while the brief musical mass ending registers the final triumph as God departs to the heavenly sphere. In all, a rare experience.

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