GOD created the world in six days and then he rested on the seventh. It has taken 12 long years and more than a million pounds to create the York Mystery Plays 2012, the first in the Museum Gardens since 1988 and the first on the grandest scale since Gregory Doran’s awe-inspiring production in York Minster in 2000.
The York 800 celebrations have been the spark for this long-overdue revival, and a combination of York Museums Trust, York Theatre Royal and York’s Christian theatre company, Riding Lights, has come together to make the Creation come alive once more.
Such a production would not have been possible even ten years ago and not only because of health and safety martinets. Technology has moved forward apace, and so the combined forces have been able to create a thrust stage surrounded by 1,400 seats on three sides that would not be out of place as York City’s new ground and a wall from York’s history: those familiar ruins of St Mary’s Abbey.
Sean Cavanagh’s design is the biggest stage in Britain this year, combining a slate floor reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway with five huge trapdoors, 15 smaller ones and five hidden stairways. Inspiration for the design, and Anna Gooch’s costumes, comes from the paintings of Stanley Spencer, while the metallic statue that lights up like the sky over the gas plant at Grangemouth is in the shape of a double helix: our DNA, our human gene.
Science as much as Spencer will play its part in Damian Cruden and Paul Burbridge’s production, from the very start as Ferdinand Kingsley’s God lies sprawled across the stage writing equations for the Creation of his world as the audience takes its seats.
The choir, up to 75 members each night, is already in position, divided either side of the stage against the abbey walls, musical director Craig Brown out of our sight but shown on a screen to the singers to keep their synchronicity. Such is the hidden magic of Mystery Play theatre-making, not least the division of only 38 microphone head sets among more than 70 speaking actors, who must swap them among themselves between scenes.
Let’s address the big talking points: God and Jesus being played by one actor and the decision to dress the production from a starting point of 1951 to recall the first staging of the Plays in modern times.
God and Jesus first. Writer Mike Kenny, whose script has medieval language but modern clarity, crunching alliteration and absolute humanity if little humour, has taken a path through the plays as a young God’s developing relationship with man, his need to send a Flood and later his son to set mankind on the right path. Come the Last Judgement, Kingsley is swapping between the two but the definition remains clear.
1950s setting and Jesus and the Devil in belt and braces? It brings a new dimension to the Plays, street plays after all, that must comment on their times or in this case, echoes of the First World War and ethnic cleansing.
Out go silvery angels and two-by-two animals or even an ass for Tony Ravenhall’s Joseph and Rachel Price’s Mary. In come all the colours of the rainbow for God’s cherubims, who dance like spinning dervishes in Lesley Ann Eden’s spectacular choreography. Ensemble scenes are no less impressive, a Bruegel painting brought to life by almost 250 actors.
Graeme Hawley’s Satan is a near constant presence, dapper, dastardly, often silent, handing stones out from a box to hurl at Jesus.
Highlights are many: a Creation that I shall not ruin by describing; Paul Osborne’s Noah and indeed the Ark scene; the Massacre of the Innocents with the tapping of feet on the trapdoors as if doors to houses. Maurice Crichton’s Scottish-toned Pontius Pilate and Frances Simon’s Angel Gabriel stand out from the crowd, but what a crowd it is, York coming together to celebrate the city on a night when the sunset could not have been more pink.
The second half could be slightly shortened, sound levels need further monitoring, but this is a magnificent resurrection of the York Mystery Plays with superb lighting by Richard G Jones, and best of all, the remarkable music of Christopher Madin, be it African percussion, the on-stage brass band players or the beautiful singing of the choir, Damian Cruden’s greatest wish is that the Plays should return in four years’ time. He and Paul Burbridge have done a mighty job to bring that wish to fruition.
- York Mystery Plays 2012, Museum Gardens, York, until August 27. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatyreroyal.co.uk
Here’s some advice for the York Mystery Plays 2012
• While the auditorium does have a roof, it is still outdoors, so come prepared for the weather. By nightfall, it is cold, so bring a warm layer, a blanket etc. If sunny, for a matinee, bring sun
cream and a hat.
• If you are prone to mosquito bites, carry a repellent with you.
• The 2012 Plays ran from 7.30pm to 11.10pm on press night. Further trimming may yet occur.
• Should you wonder what the metallic shape standing like the Olympic torch on the Mystery Plays stage is, the answer is a double helix: in other words a representation of DNA.