The Times - 9 August 2012

Sam Marlowe

 

York Mystery Plays at the Museum Gardens, York

This is a true ensemble piece, and occasional rough
edges only emphasise its unaffected passion and authenticity.

4 Stars


Thunder rumbled, lightning ripped through leaden skies and rain lashed the gothic arches of the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. No one could have wished for more atmosphere on the night I saw Damian Cruden and Paul Burbridge’s staging of the York Mystery Plays in a new version by Mike Kenny. It was almost as if, looking down on a spectacle both thrilling and exuberantly joyous, God couldn’t resist adding a few special effects. But even in more clement weather this would have a majestic sense of occasion.


Performed by two alternating casts totalling 500 community members, all led by the professionals Ferdinand Kingsley as God/Jesus, and Coronation Street baddie Graeme Hawley as Satan — a mischievous choice — the production is exhilarating in scale and effervescently witty. At well over three hours it is long; sections of the second act could be excised. But, crucially, it feels rooted in its environment and in the lives and history of the local people participating and spectating. You feel a true link between this re-imagining and the pageantry presented by one of the medieval guilds; the effect is moving.


Visually it is splendid, Cruden and Burbridge deftly marshalling the actors among Sean Cavanagh and Anna Gooch’s designs, partly monolithic granite, partly inspired by Stanley Spencer’s Cookham paintings and riddled with unexpected trapdoors through which sinners tumble into Hell. Angels in rainbow robes whirl like dervishes; a ball of flame licks an ornate steel orb and giant balloons suggest the solar system at the Creation.


A prepubescent Adam and Eve frolic in an Eden of fruit-laden topiary animals, reappearing after the Fall adult and ashamed. Noah’s flood brings rain-slicked yellow oilskins and grumpy Northern stoicism (“Nay, Noah, I’m not best pleased,” complains his disgruntled wife). Balaclava-clad assassins undertake the massacre of the innocent and the adulterous woman rescued by Jesus from stoning is left, as the mob recedes, trembling among her accusers’ discarded missiles — a distressing preparation for a Crucifixion scene of unbridled anguish.


Christopher Madin’s music is entrancing, from celestial choruses to a blazing brass band. Although Kingsley and Hawley lead the action ably this is a true ensemble piece, and occasional rough edges only emphasise its unaffected passion and authenticity. Huge, heartfelt, profoundly human.


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