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Key players in York Mystery Plays 2012
12:33pm Friday 27th July 2012 in Theatre
With The York Mystery Plays 2012 about to open, CHARLES HUTCHINSON profiles three key players in the production
• THE WRITER: Mike Kenny
MIKE Kenny is not precious about his new version of the York Mystery Plays. “As soon as they enter rehearsals, the ownership begins to shift from me and in this case no one really owns it,” says the York playwright, whose past triumphs have included The Railway Children.
“It’s like the Olympic torch: you have it for a while and then it moves on.”
Mike’s script, the one that brings together God and Jesus for one actor (Ferdinand Kingsley), will fill the air of the Museum Gardens from Thursday as the medieval cycle of plays return to the St Mary’s Abbey ruins for the first time since 1988.
“My job was to cut the Plays and make sure the production was comprehensible, and also make sure it would ‘play’, that it would tell the story well,” says Mike, whose version will run to three hours.
“I’m very unforgiving of boredom and longueurs in the theatre. I don’t like self-indulgence.”
He was grateful to co-director Damian Cruden, York Theatre Royal’s artistic direction, for his pithy summary of Mike’s task. “Right at the start Damian said we were turning the Plays into a play, and definitely I’ve approached it as a play, not a pageant,” he says.
“So the big change I made was to make it the story of God’s journey, as we needed a protagonist who we follow from the beginning of time… to the on-going end.”
Mike read all 47 plays in the York Cycle and remarkably has drawn on all but seven of them for his script, applying the keen, decisive eye of a book editor.
“There is an argument to one day do the whole of The Passion as a separate production, which is basically the York Realist’s Plays, but I pretty much took a pair of scissors to them and settled on just one trial scene: Pontius Pilate’s showdown with Jesus,” he says.
Piecing together a coherent story from 47 plays written over a span of 200 years with the need for consistency of character was another challenge.
“What I did is not that different from what I do when I’m writing one of my own plays in that I’m not a great believer in character as the driving force. The thing you play is dramatic action,” says Mike.
“So I use the dramatic action of what’s being said and the character will emerge from that, and if the action is consistent, the character will be consistent.”
• THE DESIGNER: Sean Cavanagh
Sean Cavanagh has past experience of designing a set for the Mystery Plays… the Chester Mystery Plays.
“I did that in the late Eighties, but we did them in a Big Top, which was good fun too, bit I think the thing I was really conscious of when I came to design the York Mystery Plays 2012 was that the text was so intimate and immediate and I couldn’t square that with frozen people just standing in groups.”
Sean, stalwart designer for Riding Lights, the Theatre Royal’s co-producers for this summer’s open-air production, has created a design radically different from the semi-circle designs favoured for the St Mary’s Abbey backdrop in the past.
Instead, Sean has created the biggest outdoor stage in Britain this year, surrounded by three banks of covered seating, with the abbey walls as the fourth wall. “Putting it crudely, I wanted to create the feeling of 1,400 people being close to the action, so the crucial thing was to create an intimate space despite the size,” he says.
Hence the thrust stage design. “When I joined the project, originally it wasn’t going to be that design, but deep down we all knew we wanted to do it that way and it got to the point where we felt we had to do it this way,” says Sean.
“Damian [Cruden] has always been very keen that the Plays should be an expression of community and Riding Lights have always been about taking theatre into the community and making intimate theatre, so we all agreed on making it the City of York people’s show, with the thrust stage integral to that.”
The design also echoes the artwork of Stanley Spencer. “We’re not replicating his paintings but the point of his work is that it’s inspirational,” says Sean. “For people who are worried about us moving the Plays away from their medieval context to the 1950s, I say the Plays were never in period. They were always contemporary, just as Spencer’s art reminds you that you can explore all elements of life in a contemporary setting.”
• THE COMPOSER: Christopher Madin
COMPOSER Christopher Madin has been writing music for the theatre for 26 years but the York Mystery Plays 2012 in the Museum Gardens have taken him into the new territory of choirs and brass bands.
As many as 120 singers have signed up for the community choir, their number being anywhere between 50 and 75 at any given performance, and likewise a pool of 21 brass players will provide between five and ten players each show.
Ask Christopher to describe the scale of his challenge and he says: “It’s off the scale.”
“What’s completely new for me is the sheer number of people on stage. It’s like a big epic Alexander Korda or Cecil B DeMille film, with a band playing and a big choir.
“It’s a madhouse, but in just the right way because we need to express the turbulence, the chaos of human life. In these Plays you have to express big ideas, and a lot of that we can do with music, such as the choral piece for The Flood.”
In practical terms, the choir members have 100 pages and 48 pieces of music to sing in Latin, Sanskrit and only once in English (Psalm 29), while the brass players’ contributions have risen from ten to more than 20.
“Most of the music will be underscore but we also have very big moments such as Psalm 29 for the Birth and Death of Christ and a solo soprano and solo euphonium for The Slaughter of the Innocents,” says Christopher.
“Sixteen singers have volunteered to sing that solo, so it will differ from performance to performance, but it will always be very moving.”
Joining the choir or the brass band was “an open book”. “If you turned up wanting to be in the choir, you were in, because of the nature of this being a community piece,” says Christopher.
As for the brass players, who will move around the stage and process on and off, they will be playing brass music in a way it has never been used before. “I’m taking brass band music out of its comfort zone,” says Christopher.
“The choir will be all things celestial; the brass band is very clearly rooted in the earth.”
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