The York Mystery Plays, a cycle tracing biblical history from the Creation to the Last Judgment, have been staged in the city since the 14th century. Essentially they were the first community theatre, performed by the local craftsmen’s guilds, who would sometimes take appropriate stories for themselves: the goldsmiths became the Magi, and the butchers enacted the death of Christ.
The Reformation put an end to this medieval street theatre, but the plays themselves were preserved, then revived in 1951 in the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey (with the young Judi Dench as an angel). Now co-directors Damian Cruden and Paul Burbridge have returned to that peerless open-air setting, where the ancient stone arches flicker with their own mystery against the darkening sky. The York Mystery Plays have again been revived, with a cast of some 500 volunteers and a gigantic onstage flame; and yes, the spectacle does hold something of the Olympic spirit, at least in its more sincere manifestation.
At times the production also rivals the Olympics for sheer theatrical heft. The use of the crowd – all ages, dressed in everyday mid-20th century clothes – is breathtaking: for instance, the Flood is conjured by the simple expedient of surrounding Noah’s ark with a mass of people cowering beneath black umbrellas. There are two named actors, Ferdinand Kingsley as “God and Jesus” (a role that frankly puts Hamlet in the shade) and Graeme Hawley as Satan. Both do splendidly. Yet the real stars are that glorious band of amateurs.
The production acknowledges its debt to Stanley Spencer, whose great painting The Resurrection, Cookham is evoked every time the cast rises up from trapdoors in the grey stage floor. More fundamentally, the plays embody Spencer’s concept of Christianity as something beautifully ordinary, as well as divine. The language of the adaptation (by Mike Kenny) preserves a blunt, artless poetry that roots the plays in the solid base of their Yorkshire reality.
The power does ebb at times, and three hours-plus is a long haul. Yet the production is often piercingly moving. It is also brave, as when it invents a horrific war scene that provokes God’s decision to send his son to earth: an interpolation that takes on huge theological questions.
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
The Visit York 2013 Award nominations have been announced with York Mystery Plays 2012 up for 2 titles.
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
The marketing campaign for the York Mystery Plays 2012 has been shortlisted for a prestigious TMA award.