The Mystery Plays
26 May – 30 June 2016
WINNER – Best Production York Culture Awards 2016
creative team | reviews | photographs
Adapted by Mike Poulton
Director – Phillip Breen
Designer – Max Jones
Composer / Musical Director – Richard Shepard
Lighting – Tina MacHugh
Sound – Andrea J Cox
Video Designer – Douglas O’Connell
Movement Director – Ayse Tashkiran
Fights – Liam Evans-Ford
Hair and Make-up Supervisor – Deb Kenton
Props Supervisor – Beckie May
Technical Stage Manager – Paul Veysey
Stage / Company Manager – John Pemberton
Associate Director – Becky Hope-Palmer
Associate Designer – Ruth Hall
Philip McGinley (Professional) – Jesus Christ
Mary Andrews – Angel, Chorus
Sophie Alvarez Bronfman – Youth Chorus
Rachel Atkin – Another Bad Soul / Devil
Gavin Baddely – Fourth Knight
Ruby Barker – Mary Mother of God
Christie Barnes – Eve
David Barratt – Centurion
Charlotte Barrs – Youth Chorus
Faith Battersby – Youth Chorus
Elly Beacon – Youth Chorus
Becky Blackburn – Angel / Chorus
Vikki Boddye – Angel / Chorus
Janet Bowling – Angel / Chorus
Paulina Bronfman Collovati – Woman 2
Oliver Brooke – Thomas / Judean Knight
Rosie Chivers – Youth Chorus
Jean Christie – Mrs. Noah
Sue Collingwood – Angel / Chorus
Ann Collinson – Chorus
Mark Comer – Joseph
Elizabeth Coombes – Angel / Chorus
Diane Craven – Courtier / Chorus
Maurice Crichton – King Herod / Devil
Ewan Croft – Isaak / Youth Chorus
Robert Cummings – King 1 / Roman Soldier
Frances Dalesman – Angel / Chorus
Moira Davis – Mary 2
Judy Diatta – Angel / Chorus
Sarah Disney – Courtier / Chorus
Aran Dolan – John the Apostle / Shepherd
Sheila Dunn – Chorus
Alistair Dunn – Doctor 1 / Chorus
Catherine Edge – Burgess 3
Wilma Edwards – Elder
Elizabeth Elsworth – Burgess 4
Anne Errington – Angel / Attendent / Chorus
Mic Errington – First Knight / Devil
Nigel Evans – Lawyer 2 / Judean Knight
Jessica Farnhill – Angel / Chorus
Roger Farrington – Noah
Paul French – Caiaphas / Donkey / Devil
Amelia Fordyce – Youth Chorus
Claudia Freeman – Youth Chorus
Felicia Freeman – Youth Chorus
Ian Giles – Porter, Soldier 4, Officer of the Watch 1
Toby Gordon – Lucifer
Prue Griffiths – Mary, Sister of Lazarus / Courtier
Catherine Hall – Anna
Roy Hargreaves – Poor Man
Guy Hawkyard – Shepherd 1 / Roman Soldier
Hannah Hedley Brown – Youth Chorus
Ottilie Hill Smith – Daughter in Law 1 / Youth Chorus
Lillian Hogg – Chorus
Tim Holman – Peter
Joe Hopper – Malchus
Linden Horwood – Daughter in Law 3
Julie Howarth Pulleyn – Chorus
Judith Ireland – Burgess 1
Nita Jashari – Angel / Youth Chorus
Andrew Jenkinson – Doctor 2 / Chorus
Charlotte Johnson – Youth Chorus
Harry Johnson – Youth Chorus
Jim Johnson – Beadle / Judean Knight
Anne Jones – Angel / Chorus
Lorna Kennett – Angel / Chorus
Mark Kennett – Andrew / Officer
Martin Kirk – Son 3 / Judean Knight / Matthew
Rebecca Lennon – Youth Chorus
Bob Mallow – Adam / Second Knight
Lee Maloney – Shepherd 2 / Roman Soldier
Philip Massey – Pontius Pilate
Sam McAvoy – Angel Gabriel
Martina Meyer – Attendent / Devil
Ehren Mierau – Judas Iscariot
Angie Millard – Beelzebub
Brenda Mitchell – Angel / Chorus
Minori Morgan – Youth Chorus
Rory Mulvihill – Annas / Devil
Kathleen Murphy – Courtier / Chorus
Ged Murray – Lawyer 1 / Judean Knight
Amelia Neary – Youth Chorus
David Newton – Knight 2
Elizabeth Nolan – Angel / Chorus
Simon O’Keefe – King 2 / Soldier 1
Alistair Oliver – Soldier 3 / Devil
Jennifer Page – Woman
Bethan Parkinson – Youth Chorus
Eva Parkyn – Youth Chorus
Sue Pearson – Chorus
Rachel Phillips – Daughter in Law 3
Fiona Popplewell – Youth Chorus
Freya Popplewell – Youth Chorus
Dinos Psychogios – Arch Angel Michael
Val Punt – Woman caught in adultery
Indie-Star Ramsay-Wilson – Youth Chorus
Barbara Revell – Chorus
Harry Revell – Nicodemus
Marcus Richardson – Herod Antipas / Devil / Shepherd
Celia Roberts – Youth Chorus
Sam Roberts – Isaak / Youth Chorus
John Roden – Abraham
Sandra Rowan – Roman Magistrate / Angel / Chorus
Imogen Ruby Little – Mary Magdalene / Angel
Taylor Sanderson – Messenger / Young James
Richard Sheils – Lame Man / Judean Knight / Roman Soldier
Jill Shepherd – Angel / Chorus
Bryan Shewry – Third Knight / Thief on the Right
Hannah Siddle – Youth Chorus
Sheila Shouksmith – Courtier / Chorus
Kate Siddle – Angel / Chorus
Joan Sinanan – Mary 3 / Courtier
Ian Small – God
Loretta Smith – Martha
Noel Stabler – King 3 / Roman Soldier
Elizabeth Stanforth Sharpe – Precious Percula
Elizabeth-Mae Starbuck – Angel / Youth Chorus
Di Starr – Porter
Mick Taylor – John the Baptist
Emily Thane – Messenger / Another Good Soul
Simon Thompsett – Joseph of Arimathea
Jennifer Tovey – Youth Chorus
Paul Toy - Bishop / Devil / Roman Magistrate
Liz Tune – Angel / Chorus
Bernadette Taylor – Servant / Chorus
Philip Turner – Simon of Cyrene
James Tyler – Thaddeaus
Lisa Valentine – Angel / Chorus
Samuel Valentine – Simeon
Joao Rei Vilar – Zaccheus / Shepherd / Thief on Left
Neil Vincent – Knight 1 / Devil / James the Elder
Lucy Warren – Youth chorus
Nicola Waite – Woman 1
Blair Wallace – Blind Man
Mae Wallace – Youth Chorus
Michael Waters – Lazarus
Gabriel Whalley – Son 1 / Batholomew
Patricia Williams – Angel / Chorus
Shirley Williams – Older Mary
Owen Williams – Shepherd 3 / Philip
James Wilson – Son 2 / Soldier 2
Jennie Wogan – Yet Another Bad Soul / Devil / Chorus
Cynthia Wood – Burgess 2
Carla Woodcock – Daughter in Law 1 / Youth Chorus
Yelyuzhou Xu – Angel / Chorus
by Clare Brennan
'Why pick on me? I never did nowt!' 'Oh, yes you did…' 'Let’s scrag him…' That word 'scrag' echoes memories of playground brawls. But here are no hackles-up schoolchildren. This is self-pitying Lucifer, feather-plucked wings bloodstained, in a stand-off with his fallen angels. Mike Poulton’s adaptation of York’s medieval plays resonates with words of yesterday and today, chiming their rhythms and sounds to make meanings ring clear across centuries.
The plays set out the mystery of God’s plan for humankind, from Creation to the Final Judgment, in vivid scenes taken from Christian scriptures. Presented now, as then, by the people of the city (145 actors; 250 makers – all multi-talented), they splice the mundane with the divine: 'Don’t touch – the paint’s not dry,' Noah chides God, whose outstretched hand reaches towards the newly finished ark; 'Here’s a good nail will stiffly stand,' is the workmanlike estimation of the soldier fixing Christ to the cross. Philip McGinley is spellbinding as Jesus – heroic in his simplicity; anguished in suffering.
For the second time in almost 700 years, the mysteries are performed inside the Minster. The effect is visually ravishing and epic in scale. Max Jones’s stepped set and seating, as lit by Tina MacHugh, play off horizontal lines against the nave’s soaring verticals of gothic arches and vaulted ceiling. Director Phillip Breen’s staging uses physical levels to transmit metaphysical meanings (God enters solo, on high, beneath the central arch of the transept; Christ climbs out from the audience on to the stage to join the company). Richard Shephard’s music pitches in perfectly exactly when needed (I particularly liked the percussion’s 'angelic glitter'). I missed the intimacy of the outdoor performances, but would not have missed this grandiose re-setting for – almost – anything. If, like me, you find the flesh is frail, make preparations for three-and-a-half hours (including interval) of intense concentration on hard seats and a temperature that falls with the sun. A cushion and layers of clothing will enhance the experience.
by Alfred Hickling
In the year 2000, the York Cycle of Mystery Plays was staged for the first time in the nave of the city’s cathedral; the same year, York suffered one of its most devastating floods on record. Sixteen years later, the plays have returned to the Minster as the city recovers from a deluge that caused even more damage than the one at the turn of the millennium.
One hesitates to suggest there’s a pattern developing. But even as flash floods tear through parts of France, Germany and Austria, the ecological prophecy of this mid-13th century religious pageant becomes harrowingly clear. For the mystery plays are nothing if not an epic, medieval disaster movie in which human beings carelessly destroy the world they have been presented with and are condemned to suffer the consequences.
The apocalyptic tenor of Phillip Breen’s production is vividly realised – appropriately so, given that Max Jones’s steeply rising, stepped design is framed by the Minster’s newly restored great east window, which mirrors the drama’s intention of depicting the entire course of creation in terms a medieval layman could understand. God’s summoning of the cosmos, here represented by gently bobbing tethered balloons, is the first of many breathtaking visual coups engineered throughout the course of the evening.
The production takes a playful approach to some of the great set pieces. Bob Mallow’s roughcast Adam and Christie Barnes’s loam-streaked Eve genuinely appear to have been moulded out of baked mud. And Noah’s floating menagerie is a delight; the two-by-two parade – constructed, as are all props and costumes, by an army of local volunteers – is brought up in the rear by a pair of late-arriving dodos who unfortunately miss the boat.
In the role of Christ, Philip McGinley adopts the hirsute, denim look of a southern US rocker, so that he initially looks less like the king of the Jews than one of the Kings of Leon. But he carries an aura of stillness and sadness that comes with foreknowledge of the future, and increasingly begins to resemble the tormented, medieval image of the man of sorrows.
Breen’s production makes a strong reminder that the Bible is also the story of an occupation – the imperial presence of the Roman army is never far from view. And there’s a great sense of heat beneath the proceedings, much of it generated by Toby Gordon’s fiendishly charismatic Lucifer who, far from the relatively harmless proto-pantomime villain depicted in the plays, can be genuinely quite terrifying. His initial expulsion from heaven has the vicious intent of an attack of angry swans, while his perpetual roasting gives him an increasingly scorched appearance as the action progresses. Whether or not you have any sympathy for the devil, it’s quite shocking to witness an angel being torn wing from wing.
by Sarah Freeman
Running to almost four hours the York Minster Mystery Plays 2016 is a production on a biblical scale. Not quite as long as the six days it took God to make heaven and earth, but epic nevertheless.
Last performed four years ago in the city’s Museum Gardens, this time the cycle moves indoors to York Minster for the first time in 16 years and it looks spectacular. The Gothic nave provides an impressive backdrop and against it designer Max Jones and director Phillip Breen have created some beautifully breathtaking moments.
From the creation of the planets, which sees the nave filled with helium balloons, to the story of Noah and the Flood which welcomes giraffes in Sou’westers and zebras with flight cases to the stage this is an instantly accessible production.
It needs to be because there is much ground to cover. Beginning with some of the Old Testament’s most famous characters, the Plays give way to the story of Jesus’s birth, death and resurrection and it’s here where the setting is at its most inspired.
Philip McGinley, the only paid professional in a cast of hundreds, is a diminutive Jesus, but he has a masterly command of the stage. From the Leonardo da Vinci Last Supper tableau to the crucifixion, much of the second half looks like an ancient religious painting.
What brings this production to life is the community cast. Some have been professionally trained; others have never stepped on a stage before. All are unpaid volunteers who give the Mystery Plays heart and soul.
The Reviews Hub
by Rich Jevons
After a gap of some 16 years, the Mystery Plays are back in York Minster, reviving a tradition that dates back to the 14th Century. Designed both to educate and inspire, the plays tell the Biblical story from Creation to the Last Judgement. It is a cosmic drama set in Heaven, Earth and Hell that everyone can identify with whether Christian or otherwise. Although there is an essential message of hope, we are not spared the cruelty, especially in the Passion scenes.
Mike Poulton has reworked his script from the Millennium production to make the Mystery Plays accessible, while also being irrepressibly profound. There is precise and passionate direction by Phillip Breen and Becky Hope-Palmer while magnificent design by Max Jones with Ruth Hall set the scene for a visual masterpiece. This is accompanied by beautiful and plaintive music, directed by Dr Richard Shephard.
The proceedings start with the fall of rebel angels; sinister and dark costumes indicating the evil ones. The Creation is captured with some superb special effects and heavenly costumes, followed by a very moving portrayalof the Fall of Man and Expulsion from Paradise. The depiction of Noah and the Flood isalmost a light relief, with a whole range of fantastic animal costumes and an impressive Ark to house them all in. Throughout, the production retains a Biblical accuracy, combiningit with a more playful and entertaining presentation of events on a massive scale.
God, after testing Noah, once more puts mankind on trial when Abraham is demanded to sacrifice his son Isaak, saved at the last-minute by the Lord’s mercy. We witness Joseph’s disbelief at the Annunciation and a wonderful nativity before a terrifying flight into Egypt and a ghastly massacre of the Innocents. We follow Christ’s life, including his temptation in the wilderness and entry into Jerusalem. As Jesus, Philip McGinley has a masterful gracebut also displays humility and the troubled nature of the Messiah.
From here on, things turn dreadfully dark with the Passion, really brought to life in some excruciating scenes of torture and a mockery of trial. The Crucifixion is perhaps the key moment of the show, with huge wooden crosses upon which the three ‘criminals’ are nailed; Christ spotless in sin, but taking upon himself the sins of the world. Just three days after the atrocity, Jesus is resurrected and appears to his disciples, though Thomas for a while remains in disbelief.
Finally, the Ascension is portrayed with wonderful illusions and the Last Judgement comes as a reminder of the wrath of God, as well as his grace and redemption bought by the blood of Christ. Despite running for almost four hours, this is a superb show that continues the centuries-old tradition of endearing the viewers to a sense of the presence of God while also standing up as an unmissable piece of contemporary theatre. The cast cannot befaultedand the technical side of the show goes without a hitch to maintain a sense of complete illusion. A tour-de-force that, along with the newly reopened York Theatre Royal, puts York firmly on the theatrical map. Sensational.
by Kate Brennan
For nearly 700 years, the York Mystery Plays have told the story from creation through to judgement, for York’s residents and tourists. This year, for only the second time since its beginnings in the 1300s, the 48 plays of the Mystery Plays have entered the York Minster.
I was excited to see a performance which has had such high crucial acclaim including a 4 star review from The Guardian. After wandering round the Minster the day before, seeing large planets floating above my head and a variety of animal costumes dotted around the building I was intrigued and excited to see the famous Mystery Plays in the backdrop of this magnificent, historical setting.
Upon entering the Minster, I was taken aback as to how different it looked, the central nave was unrecognisable filled with around 1000 seats. It had taken over 2000 man-hours to complete the transformation before me with set and lighting created by an award winning team, including director of the RSC, Phillip Breen.
The plays began with the entrance of God, played by Ian Small, adorned in a white gown and golden mask creating a celestial image as he naturally dominated the stage echoing the creation of heaven and earth. The visual of this scene was spectacular; the chorus carried in balloons of light up planets aligning to the rising sun at upstage centre, birds were manipulated to gracefully fly up above, fishes swam the seas and a whale gracefully made its way across the stage. It was a beautiful scene which left me not knowing where to look.
A scene which sticks in the mind, I imagine for a lot of people, was the tale of Noah and the Flood. Noah, played by Roger Farrington, was a comical fumbling Yorkshire man. The costume and scenery of this tale is what made it. Two-by-two the animals entered, a vast array of costumes entered the stage and made their way onto the ark in the centre of the stage. The actors playing the animals should be commended for their performance as they followed the gait of their animal counterpart; the penguins waddled, the rabbits bounced and the life-like heads of the elephants slowly paced, batting away the flies with their tales. The transformation to the stormy sea was a highlight of the performance as cloths of blue surrounded the ark and were rippled by the chorus as the flood rose.
Noah and the Flood also contained a number of comical elements to further the audience’s enjoyment. The scene became less biblical at these moments; stopping God from touching the ark as “the paint’s still wet”, the domestic between Mr and Mrs Noah and the highly amusing moment when a pair of dodos made their way to the closed ark and were sadly left behind.
The lead actors of the plays were chosen well, with clear voices and characteristics which dominated the audience’s attention.
Lucifer, played by Toby Gordon, was a brilliant antihero as he steadily deteriorated from angel to devil. The character was given in some sense a sub-plot, underlying the plays was Lucifer’s deterioration as he began as a graced angel, then violently torn apart ending with skeletal wings. Gordon’s performance made Lucifer like a pantomime villain with his menacing voice speaking to the audience in a hue of red light and smoke, I almost expected the audience to begin booing and hissing upon his entrance.
The villain Herod, played by Maurice Crichton, on the other hand was a villain presented in a comical fashion. He was performed as a camp Yorkshire man, calling a wise man a “saucy knave.” Crichton played Herod as a flamboyant and grand character, creating an eerie oxymoron as such an amusing character orders the killing of all baby boys.
This brings to me the scene which I found the most uncomfortable, which I imagine was the desired effect. Flight into Egypt and Massacre of the Innocents, was indeed a disturbing play. The close proximities of the women huddled together holding their babies (dolls) as the soldiers slowly approached created a tense atmosphere. I was not sure how they were going to perform the massacre, if it was going to be suggested or enacted. Despite the lack of fake blood spewing across the stage, the scene was still horrifying in its own gruesome way. The soldiers forced the babies from the deafening screams of the mothers. The babies were held up high for all the audience to see and decapitated to reveal red ribbons of blood. Dolls were launched across the stage, stamped on by soldiers and red ribbons emerged everywhere, all under the disturbing and uncomfortable sound of screaming women and crying babies. I felt slightly sickened at the scene, but it was nevertheless effective in its dramatisation.
As would be expected with the Mystery Plays, Jesus, played by professional actor Philip McGinley, was the talent of the plays. He had an impressive voice and a graceful and dominating presence when on the stage. His deep, bellowing voice was performed in the same calm, monotone voice throughout his performance. He indeed came across as the voice of reason who mastered the stage among the mixture of accents of the other actors.
For the Crucifixion, I had a mixed response. It began well, McGinley struggled with the cross, bearing his crown of thorns and crying in pain. The dramatic beginning created a tense and aggressive atmosphere as the crowd shouted in anger at the passing Jesus. Moments done in slow motion increased the tension and heightened the sense of impending doom with the loud clunks of the crosses being raised echoing in the background.
Personally, this was the high point of the scene as the tension and atmosphere was somewhat lost after this moment. I was expecting it to come to a climax as McGinley approached the cross, expecting him to be dramatically raised for all to see. Instead of this pinnacle moment however, there was a ten minute dialogue between the soldiers as they took their time to nail McGinley down. The moment came across as an attempt to create comic relief, as the northern soldiers ‘bantered’ and joked around. However this was more irritating and not needed as it slowed down the pace of what I would deem as the most dramatic play of the plays. The Minster, did however, heighten the sense of drama in the play as the thunder echoed and the lightning flashed around the cathedral creating a climatic and dark atmosphere.
Overall, the Mystery Plays gave me a unique and wonderful experience of music, drama and breath-taking visuals. Throughout the performance, the chorus of over 150 actors sang beautifully in the round creating a magical atmosphere as the sound echoed in the Minster.
The Minster was the perfect setting. At times the combination of microphone and echoed voices created a muffled sound, making it difficult to make out every word. Nevertheless, the lighting, music and sound effects created a brilliant atmospheric environment.
Be aware of the rather long running time of 3 hours and 45 minutes and the cold interior, but if you get the opportunity, see the epic tale performed in the Gothic cathedral.
One and Other Creative
by Miles Watts
There’s a reason it’s called The Greatest Story Ever Told, and whether your way in was Bible stories at Sunday school, your kids’ nativity play, Milton’s Paradise Lost at A-Level (it was for me) or perhaps a chance encounter with Faust, this is a story you know well, religious leanings or not.
What unravels in the three-plus hours of this year’s Mystery Plays is that when it comes to familiarity, staging is everything, and this year’s Plays are staged in the most stunning theatrical setting you could possibly imagine: York Minster.
The Old Testament contains all the cute stuff: the creation of the universe, the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark, all colourfully realised with enormous helium balloon planets, a highly impressive array of animals going in two by two (they’re skilfully made of cane and hessian: see our Behind The Scenes videos below) and the real-time construction of the Ark, shortly before the 150-strong crew from the York community manage the impressive feat of ‘flooding’ the Minster using gargantuan sheets of billowing blue satin. The introduction also depicts the banishing of Lucifer (a compelling Toby Gordon) who sneers his way through his fate, deteriorating each time we see him from the fallen angel with bloodied wings into the charred, damned soul we’ve come to know and not quite love. The ambitious staging is awe-inspiring and imbues the story from the start with exactly what it requires: a sense of scale and wonder.
The first half (two hours that whizz by like one) concludes with the nativity and an adult Jesus (a terrific Philip McGinley) beginning his teachings; Herod’s shocking massacre of the first-born children and the machinations of the tyrannical Roman Empire. Max Jones’ clever, attractive production design, stages and costumes dominate the Minster rather than being dwarfed by it: a heavenly staircase reminds of Heaven in Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death; swathes of red Roman banners are cast onto the walls, interspersed with the stars and planets wheeling overhead, the unblinking passage of time reminding us that these tales may be 2000 years old but have lost none of their relevance and potency.
When we return, the second half focuses on Christ’s rise and fall, the sudden sparseness of the set and enormity of the Minster lending the story more of a gladiatorial feel: we are now the spectators in an epic arena, watching the fate of one man and the betrayal and chaos all around him informing us not just of the past, but of the present and, if we’re not careful, future. You can’t fail to be moved, religion aside: this is a damn great story.
Christ’s eventual trial and crucifixion has been depicted many times but there is something about seeing three men hoisted above a crowd of baying onlookers that still stuns when actually witnessed on a stage. Quite how they did it I’m still working out, but this was a mighty achievement, beautifully arranged and carried out.
It’s a (new) testament to Director Philip Breen and his enormous cast and crew that not only do the 2016 Mystery Plays impress, but frequently astound and amaze: the co-ordination and direction for such an enormous production is virtually flawless, with touches of humour ensuring a welcome lack of too-earnest storytelling. York has long been blessed with a vast community of skilled and passionate creative people, and the Mystery Plays showcases this community spirit at its finest: the term ‘community theatre’ is not to be uttered with eyeballs rolled when faced with a spectacle this well executed, but in fact represents the absolute best example of what a community can achieve when given such wonderful ingredients to work with.
The Mystery Plays have been a part of York’s history for hundreds of years, and that’s exactly the feeling you get as they unfold before you: that if you missed out on this production, you’ve missed out on a part of history. We are, after all, merely passing through history, and The Greatest Story Ever Told is one that will be told as long as people draw breath. Go and see this historical production whether it’s a part of your own story or not: it’s truly a marvellous, wondrous piece of theatre.
by Louise Jones
It brings a whole new dimension to Yorkshire’s reputation as ‘God’s own country’ when God himself steps down from Heaven and talks to man with a thick Yorkshire accent. This is of course peak Mystery Plays: first performed in the mid-14th century, the cycle plays were brought to the streets of York in order to make religion more widely accessible. But there’s also been an association throughout the plays with the people behind each sequence, the people who made York the beautiful and thriving city it is today. True to heritage, the sense of unity across the city is alive and well in a vibrant, modern celebration of the York Mystery Plays.
Mike Poulton’s writing is careful to stick with the original text’s geographic roots, reflected in the lilting metre of verse which best suits a Yorkshire dialect. That said, the play is framed with Latin scripture, aping a classical style as Ian Small’s God emerges in robes with an ancient Greek theatrical mask. Vernacular takes over, continuing the shift from Latin texts to English oral translations of the Bible. Careful consideration is given again in the choice of alliteration used by Pilate (Philip Masey) and Caiaphus (Paul French). A heated discussion between the two turns plosive, giving the actors a chance to really spit their lines at one another as the trials of Jesus come to a head. Poulton brilliantly matches their heated arguments when Caiaphus questions Jesus, only to be met by softer, sibilant sounds. Immediately we understand that Jesus has taken the passive and pacifist role within these scenes.
Academic fangirling aside (look at me, making the most of my literature degree with a module in Medieval texts), there’s plenty to show for Philip Breen and Becky Hope-Palmer’s direction and the subtle ways it takes steps in transferring the Mystery Plays to suit a more progressive audience. Whilst there is no amending the fact that it is Eve who instigates original sin, the relationship between Christine Barnes and Bob Mallow’s Eve and Adam is not as irreparably damaged as it seems in previous depictions of the Fall of Man. Rather than threatening, Adam berates Eve in almost sitcom-esque levels of exasperation. The humourous route is a charming one, which deftly diverts the tone from an otherwise dark one. Thusly they avoid the connotations and undercurrents of misogyny present in some readings of lapsarian literature. Admittedly, sometimes this is done at the expense of a greater pathos. Noah’s wife begging to bring her family with her is overlooked for an extended sequence of loading the animals onto the Ark. Whilst we no longer see the human aspect of the Flood (wiping out greater mankind of course comes with the acceptance of Noah’s family that they must sever the outside ties with their children, spouses etc.), we do see a more universally entertaining scene which in turn creates more dynamic movement across the stage. Even the simplest of quirks such as the waddling penguins atop the shoulders of the chorus creates an effective addition to the menagerie unfolding on the beautifully crafted stage.
The change of tone which has the greatest impact is the treatment of the scene Joseph’s Troubles. Dealing with issues of immaculate conception versus Joseph’s initial disbelief, this scene has a tendency to run the risk of carrying a sinister edge. Indeed, the last fixed stage performance of these plays in 2012 was depicted almost as a kitchen sink drama when it came to Joseph’s violent refusal to accept Mary’s narrative. Instead the dynamic between Ruby Barker’s Mary and Mark Comer’s Joseph is every bit as caring and tender as befits the beginning of such a vitally important Biblical cycle. Observing the age difference, it’s refreshing to see Barker’s unwavering faith opposite Comer’s utter bewilderment. We later see Comer’s eagerness to embrace his newly adopted fatherhood status, even extending this role to his young bride. An act so small as refusing to let Mary carry a bundle of clothes reflects both Joseph’s frailty and his sense of duty, securing Comer as one of the strongest performances in the night.
Philip McGinley’s Jesus is an exquisitely sympathetic portrayal, focussing the admitted flawed divinity which comes with Jesus’ growing up in an environment filled with mankind and sin. It perfectly mirrors and contrasts with Toby Gordon’s Lucifer, another flawed divine creature who refuses to accept this infallibility. Both actors approach silently, McGinley’s presence filling the Minster with warmth whilst Gordon chills the air on his entrance. The Temptation in the Wilderness is an excellent chance to watch these great talents lock horns and really command the site specific stage.
Set pieces and costuming are enough to make the breath catch in your throat, giving the Mystery Plays an overall appearance of an Epic piece of theatre. The Minster’s extravagant architecture serves as a silent member of the cast- it’s a happy coincidence that the darker scenes correspond with the sun setting through the stained glass windows, but it does feel that the Minster itself is playing a part in creating such an arresting atmosphere. With only a week left, be sure not to miss such an incredibly impressive labour of love that celebrates unity and the continuation of great storytelling.
British Theatre Guide
by Mark Smith
Four years on from the 2012 Mysteries, co-produced by York Theatre Royal, Riding Lights Theatre Company and York Museums Trust, and sixteen years after the Greg Doran-directed Millennium Mysteries, the plays have returned to the massive, aweing scale of the Minster.
With nearly 150 actors and a month's worth of performances (to a massive, purpose-built, thousand-seater auditorium), the size of the Minster and the sweep of the stories are not the only 'epic' things about this undertaking.
As has become traditional, all but a few of the performers and crew are unpaid volunteers, and this mass community involvement enables director Phillip Breen to populate the stage with impressive crowd-driven set-pieces.
The production returns to the text created by Mike Poulton for the Millennium Mysteries. Derived from medieval waggon plays, in which each biblical story would be told by a different guild around the city (in all taking almost a whole day), this adaptation compresses the action of four dozen of these playlets into a single show. It maintains much of the evocative Yorkshire vocabulary of the compulsively rhyming and alliterative Middle English texts, so God's might is 'full mickle', and the Roman authorities refer to Jesus as a 'gadabout lad'.
This is not as streamlined as Mike Kenny's 2012 adaptation: Breen's production clocks in at just less than four hours, which may deter some theatregoers. But it must be said that the constant generation of imaginative and vibrant imagery on a massive scale is enough to maintain the attention.
It's the design which, for me, is the star here. Max Jones and Ruth Hall's intelligent work fills the voluminous vertical space of the Minster's nave with towering steps, an immense banner mirroring the building's columns, and even, during the Creation, large, glowing, helium-filled planets. Backed with live orchestral and choral music created by Richard Shephard, these moments are often magical and generate the sense of reverence and wonder fitting of the subject matter.
Ian Small opens the evening, playing God with benevolence, clarity and calm. He sets in motion the story of the Creation and subsequent Exodus from Eden. Breen's use of the space cleverly moves from sparse vasty voids to densely populated crowds, and the story of Noah and the Flood, for instance, gives us streams of cleverly designed animal costumes marching into the hastily-constructed Ark before a deluge of blue satin transforms the massive stage.
Maurice Crichton pops up as a broad Yorkshire Herod, with a gold cape to rival the floods and an entrance to make a pantomime villain green with envy. Later we see Philip Massey nicely differentiated from this as Pontius Pilate, played straight and stentorian. Unfortunately, his soldiers, like the shepherds before them, follow in another grand tradition: the working class comic relief fails to translate over the centuries, as in countless modern Shakespearean productions as well.
When the one paid actor, Philip McGinley, turns up as Jesus towards the end of the long first half, he exudes a power and serenity befitting the character. It helps that McGinley demonstrates perfect vocal mastery, exuding a beatific calm through his rich tones. It probably also helps that he gets his top off within a minute of his appearance, much to the swooning delight of a few (presumably) Game of Thrones fans around me.
Shirt or no shirt, he is splendid, and takes up his role with controlled skill. The part is, appropriately, something of a cipher for audiences (whether they profess a faith or not) to project onto.
But it's advisedly that I refer to him as the paid actor, rather than the professional one. There is a depth of talent within the cast, none more captivating than Toby Gordon as Lucifer. In the role, Gordon channels the purposeful swagger required to play the Devil on a stage of this scale. He is powerful and malevolent, and his final appearance (again aided by skilful design and costume work) is genuinely demonic.
Tina MacHugh’s lighting design deserves applause, too, for its imagination and clarity of purpose. Often the immense steps are divided cunningly into several layers of lights, so towards the climax the angels are doused in warm yellowy hues as Jesus ascends to join them, lit in a more searing, pure white, and the humans below watch on bathed in subtly more earthly tones.
It is a production of memorable spectacle, then, and sufficiently fast-paced (just) to maintain the interest over its long running time and through what might otherwise risk becoming a sequence of tableaux vivants, albeit imaginative and impressively mounted ones.
by Charles Hutchinson
For only the second time in the near 700-year history of the York Mystery Plays, they have left behind their cobbled street roots and Museum Gardens resurrection for the awe-inspiring York Minster.
They previously did so in 2000 when Mike Poulton and Richard Shephard were writer and music director/composer respectively, just as they are in 2016, but Yorkshireman Poulton and esteemed former York headmaster Shephard have not rested on their laurels.
Mr Poulton has pruned, cut, trimmed and updated his comprehensive script, with a relish for Yorkshire's naturally percussive, alliterative, guttural yet still poetic language and a grumpy, restless, even Boycottian humour beloved of the Broad Acres and the occasional modern idiom for extra effect.
Mr Shephard, meanwhile, has pretty much come up with a new score and underscore, save for revisited hymnal flourishes, where for once in this world, the angels in their glowing halos, rather than the devils, have the best tunes.
Acting on the advice to take your seat a good ten minutes before the start enables you to survey the splendour of Max Jones's set: stone colour-coordinated with the Nave on steps that climb to Heaven, with a protruding jetty into the audience for monologue moments.
On a banner behind, Douglas O'Connell's video designs will become a thing of beauty and wonder throughout, matched by Tina MacHugh's lighting that at one point turns the Nave ceiling into all the colours of the rainbow. This is why the Mystery Plays have their occasional day in the Minster: the epic scale and spirituality is beyond any other building in our historic city.
Hotshot director Phillip Breen has arraigned his forces impressively and in turn he has combined tradition with modernity in the production's dress code, both biblical and high street; its diaspora of York community actors in 2016, new faces and regulars alike; and in his nod to the Plays' Corpus Christi Day traditions with two trees and Mary and Joseph's stable both being placed on the traditional form of transport: carts.
The first half ensemble set-pieces are magnificently staged: the Creation with a galaxy of planets and radiant angels; Roger Farrington's stoic Noah and the two dodos being barred from the ark before the flood of all floods in a sea of blue that recalled Gregory Doran's production from 2000.
Bob Mallow and Christie Barnes's clay-clad Adam and Eve leave nothing to the imagination to somewhat comic effect, while Maurice Crichton's camp Herod, with Hull vowels and a manner reminiscent of Peter Kay's Potter in Phoenix Nights, stands out in the first half. Ruby Barker's Mary impresses too.
All this before Philip McGinley makes his entry as Jesus in jeans, briefly recalling Robson Green's attire in 1992, but soon dispensing them for robes and going on to give a moving portrayal, his voice caressing the walls like no other in the company of 200.
You will hear from plenty that the Minster Mystery Plays end up even longer than the profusion of bonkers biblical beards that outdo our 21st century fad, with a very late-night finish in store. The trials, as always, become a trial of big argumentative voices, but the spectacle and McGinley's still, composed Jesus win out.
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Ravage Productions
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Pete Le May
Photo © Pete Le May
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