THE Lords of Misrule are returning to the Guilds of York’s waggon production of the Mystery Plays for the first time since 1998.

Such medieval plays might seem familiar territory for a University of York-based society devoted solely to drama dating from the Middle Ages, but preserving a play’s origins while simultaneously making the performance relevant, accessible and entertaining for a contemporary audience is a test for any director.

Laura Elizabeth Rice is at the helm of the Lords’ latest offering and has worked tirelessly to breathe life into their assigned piece, The Transfiguration.

“Understanding the biblical origins of the story, as well as how it works within the Mystery Plays as a whole, has been a real challenge,” she says.

Given that only six or seven actors can perform on a waggon at any one time, Laura’s chosen directorial path will greatly expand the number of actors involved, as well as offering a fresh take on this historic text.

“To make the play more immersive for our audiences, we’re creating a kind of play-within-a-play,” she says.

“The whole cast, as well as all the members of our waggon crew, will play a group of peasants who are performing the parts in The Transfiguration. The actors have come up with identities for their peasant character, and will be free to improvise on the day while engaging with audiences and answering their questions.”

A high proportion of the Lords Of Misrule, including Laura herself, are students of the medieval period at the University of York, so the “peasants” in The Transfiguration will prove a rich store of contextual information for any curious audience member.

Educational institutions in York are playing a big part in this year’s Mystery Plays; not only are the Lords returning, but also the Merchant Adventurers and Merchant Taylors will be accompanied in their performances by Pocklington School and All Saints’ RC School respectively.

York St John University will be performing Abraham and Isaac, while St. Peter’s School’s Massacre Of The Innocents will mark the school’s first year of involvement in this historic theatrical tradition.

About half of the current Lords Of Misrule hail from America, including Laura.

“Cycles of Mystery Plays are well known in the US; the University of Toronto recently gave a phenomenal performance of the Chester cycle,” Laura says. “But there’s something very special about studying and performing these plays in York itself.”

Despite their refreshingly innovative take on The Transfiguration, the Lords’ performance remains anchored in the ancient traditions of the Mystery Plays: it is one of six being staged by the Guilds on a traditional, moveable waggon for the first time since the Middle Ages. “The Lord of Misrule put on at least three medieval plays a year,” Laura says, “but it’s so nice to be part of a performance that’s so entrenched in York history.”

- Lydia Onyett