The Yorker - 10 August 2012

Jason Rose and Jamie Beckett


York Mystery Plays 2012


The York Mystery Plays were originally a series of plays performed by the city’s craft guilds on the Feast of Corpus Christi from the 1300s until 1569. They were a way of celebrating the Guilds' achievements and also the biblical narrative, from the creation of the world through to Christ and the Final Judgement. After the 1951 revival, the Plays were modernised and performed every three years until 1969 and every four years since. This year represented a phenomenal up-sizing and increased scope, presenting the largest-scale Mystery Plays in history.

And they pulled it off remarkably well. With costume coming from the early 20th Century, the company presented the plays in a way which told the stories of the Bible alongside the people of York themselves. The performers did their jobs brilliantly – a terrific feat for a cast so large that they had to be split into two groups: the Potters and Carpenters, of which we watched the former.

Following in the footsteps of the original productions, all of the smaller roles and most of the larger ones were acted by amateurs from York itself, with some of these non-professionals as superb as the paid actors. It was nice to see so much participation from the community of York, with familiar faces striking fresh energy and relevance into the stories, just as the medieval audiences would have felt. The two main roles (Lucifer and God/Jesus, played by Graeme Hawley and Ferdinand Kingsley) were excellent, Kingsley particularly splendid in the main role.

It was a bold choice for Mike Kenny, writer of the script for the 2012 performance, to use much of the original dialogue and directions in his version. Although the word “mickle” (meaning ‘great’ – as in Micklegate) is used a little zealously, the poetry of the piece and the retention of the York Plays’ famous alliteration are both pulled off really well, as is the rhythm of the dialogue.

Contrasting the received pronunciation of God and his Angels in early scenes, characters’ voices gradually broadened to a variety of accents duly reflecting the city’s inhabitants and medieval antecedents. Noah and his wife played with the dialogue especially well, brawling in a comedic speech in which the latter refuses to step foot on the ark until she’s told precisely what is going on. Although Herod lacked some of the pompousness and bombast which are supposed to make his character the supreme figure of ridicule, the actors all juggled their consonants with knowing wit and considerable vigour.

The music was exquisite, the combination of both a large choir and smaller brass band (apt for historic Yorkshire) allowed for flexibility over styles of music which seemed both beautifully accurate in tone and appropriate for separate scenes. The scenery, too, was both novel and appurtenant, from animal-shaped hedges bearing fruit in the Garden of Eden to the box-fit Noah's Ark. Even more impressively, the use of staging and trapdoors was incredible - much more versatile than just one or two flaps in floor. Of many others, fountains, hell-pits and even the streets of Bethlehem were summoned from the blank floor.

Jason: For me personally, the usage of modern soldiers with rifles and the pyrotechnics didn't bring anything new. Aside from the moment when a blank was fired in my direction and scared the life out of me, it seemed not to match the general aesthetics of the production. Likewise the large flames seemed never to really do anything other than burn, and the red lighting and smoke were much more effective at the same thing. But, these minor points aside, I felt that the production was an excellent way of showing the historicity of biblical productions and the vast ability of York's amateur actors.

Jamie: I love the original humour of the Medieval plays and despite leaving out the comedy of the original crucifixion scene – possibly black comedy gone a bit far – the production created these moments of laughter excellently. Criticisms that crowd scenes were too loud and hectic seem to miss the point for me – I especially enjoyed the scene of the Flood, with the cast – all presenting those who were not saved – coursing around the Ark in perfect choreography, umbrellas up, like undulating waves. What the plays demonstrated throughout was an inclusion of the community alongside the biblical grandeur, something which makes up the Mystery Plays’ purpose – not just a religious celebration, but a celebration of the people’s city.

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