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.
The Mystery Plays run until the 30th June, tickets still available.