The York Mystery Plays are coming back to the city streets. This year they will be performed on wagons, as originally intended. But a special evening performance in Shambles Market will highlight the plays' dark side, reports CHARLES HUTCHINSON

TRADITIONALLY the York Mystery Plays ran from dawn until dusk on the streets of York on Corpus Christi Day in June. However, for one night only, the Plays will be going to the dark side as part of the York Festival Trust and Guilds of York's 2018 production on pageant wagons.

In addition to Sunday performances of 11 plays from the York Cycle this weekend and next weekend, the Guilds will be spreading a pair of bat-like wings for a night of after-dark performances from 6.30pm in the Shambles Market, when five of the weekend plays will be staged.

This is the first such venture since the Guilds began their four-yearly cycle of performing episodes from the York Mystery Plays on wagons that roll through the city streets 20 years ago.

Make It York, the fulcrum for setting out the arts agenda in York, had been looking for ways to adapt the Shambles Market as a performance space, to broaden its use outside of the market’s daytime hours. Tom Straszewski, the artistic director and Pageant Master for the 2018 Mystery Plays, wholly embraced the new possibilities open to this summer's production.

"Basically, Make It York came to us and said, 'can you help is with our new Shambles Market, because after 5pm it shuts down', so it's a chance to see what can be down with the market space in the evening, though obviously we couldn't do over four hours of plays!" he says. "We had to put on something shorter.

"So, when we started talking about a set of performances in the Shambles, we needed something to link them together. Looking through the groups who were able to be involved – school groups obviously couldn't do that night and other groups had actors who weren't available – it turned out that the five plays were all on the nastier side in tales of temptation, murder and betrayal.

"Then we had a brainstorming session about what would work in that space as we didn't it to be just a revamp of the weekend shows."

The solution was a a Devil of a good idea, as everything fell into place to focus on the darker Mysteries of life...and death. "There's a recurring phrase when people talk about the Mystery Plays and that is of how darkness turns into light," says Straszewski. "Luckily Alan Heaven – what a perfect name for a Mystery Plays director – was going to be using a lot of LED lighting for his performance of the last play, The Last Judgement, with everyone in white costumes with LED lights on, so that play would be illuminated and we could go from darkness to light on the night!"

"So, for our Sunday performances, God starts things off with the creation of the world and keeps a firm hand on the wheel as the plays progress, but next Wednesday in the Shambles Market will be a bit different: Lucifer will start his own plays off with the first murder, involving Cain and Abel, then try to keep his own brand of fun going as long as he can.

"Ultimately, God will take over again for our final Sunday performance. It's a story of turning darkness into light, perfect for our later September performances as the autumn nights begin to creep in."

The Shambles Market will be turned into a hive of devilish activity as the Devil himself takes over for the evening. Straszewski has used elements of the York Plays to create a linking story as Lucifer flexes his muscles and tries to keep control, and whereas the Sunday performances will involve the wagons moving from station to station, in the Shambles it will be the audience who move from place to place. As demons and angels roam the marketplace, the York Waits will be using their early music to guide the audience between each play.

"The Wednesday plays will start with the Lords of Misrule getting medieval with the first murder," says Straszewski. "Then there are scenes of temptation from the Cordwainers, and a bloody Crucifixion from the Butchers of York. There's a fight for the souls of the departed in the Harrowing Of Hell, which sees a hellish prison turned upside down. And for the big finale, the Ravens Morris will be lighting up the market with a heavenly host of angels on Judgement Day."

Playing Lucifer will be the cadaverous, long-fingered James Swanton, bringing some devilish charm to the Shambles as a demonic master of ceremonies for the evening. He comes to the Mystery Plays on the back of writing, filming and performing in Frankenstein's Creature, which he premiered at London's FrightFest film festival in late August.

Swanton is a familiar figure in York and beyond as an accomplished horror actor, most notably in blood-soaked appearances as Count Dracula and, farther afield, in Sikes & Nancy at the West End's Trafalgar Studios.

"I worked with James on Dracula last October, so he's gone from playing one prince of darkness to another," says Straszewski. "He's a skilled actor, with this presence about him that gives him a unique talent for horror, so I'm really looking forward to seeing what he brings to the Mysteries without being bogged down in one play.

"So I've taken bits from Mystery Play scripts, mostly from the York Mysteries, particularly from plays we don't get to see this time, and I've 'stolen' from the Chester and Wakfield Mysteries too – wherever there is devilry! – so it's almost 'The Greatest Hits of the Devil' for James to deliver before God takes over again in readiness for the second Sunday."

Where and when you can see the York Mystery Plays 2018

September 9 and 16: 11 plays at The Green, The Fair, The Streets and The Stage

From 11am to 2.45pm: College Green, open to all. Bring a picnic and a rug and watch for as long as you like.

From 11.45am to 3.45pm: St Sampson's Square; a chance to immerse yourself in the drama of a medieval fair.

From 12.35pm to 4.30pm: St Helen's Square; performed among the crowds. The streets are the best place to watch if you are just passing by.

From 1.30pm to 5.30pm: King's Manor, raked seating; ticket required, available online and on the door. Enclosed location under cover, away from the bustling streets, enabling you to experience the 11 plays from beginning to end in seated comfort. Prompt booking advised.

September 12: Five plays in The Mysteries After Dark

At 6.30pm: The Shambles Market

A one-off chance to encounter the darker side of the York Mysteries as devils and angels roam the market streets, while lost souls cry out for salvation.

For more information and to buy tickets, visit