Arts: Theatre: Divinity laced with resentment

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT WAS the spouses and partners of the critical community who were spitting resentment. On the last Saturday before Christmas, the National Theatre decided to programme an 11-hour press day for its revival of one of this institution's biggest hits: the Tony Harrison Mysteries directed by Bill Bryden as a promenade community piece in the Cottesloe. Presumably, in its infinite charity, the National had the spiritual well-being of the critics in mind. As it happens, in fact, I was able to ring home and reassure my harassed wife that any distinction between the dog-eat-dog crush of last-minute Christmas shopping and the swarming heave of being in the thick of this show is a bit academic. It was only 1.30pm and already I had nearly crippled at least one Academy Award winner among my fellow- promenaders.

I hope my very mixed feelings about this event are not unduly coloured by the fact that over the course of the day I toppled into stretcher-case flu or that, having promenaded in all three sections, The Nativity, The Passion and Doomsday, I reckoned, come 10pm, I had swabbed for England. Here - and this, I suspect, will be a minority report - are my doubts about the aesthetic and moral principles from which this show draws its relentlessly robust life. On the one hand, I honour its refusal to dilute the raging political incorrectness of the story, in vibrant contrast to Katie Mitchell's two recent versions for the RSC which, in getting rid of the Devil and in giving an avowedly capricious God many a rap over the knuckles for his trying ways, made a nonsense of calling the piece The Mysteries since the word applied neither to theological imponderables nor the medieval trades-guilds who originally mounted the plays.

Harrison's show, by contrast, is very big on Northern origins and obviously works on the notion that you can separate the men from the boys in Mysteries by the openness with which they portray God's determination, in the final judgement, to separate the sheep from the goats. But presenting the cosmos as a sort of Northern theme park overhung with twinkling working-class ironmongery for stars and with frescoed trades-union banners as its equivalent of a Sistine ceiling, the production often comes close to feeling fake, Brassed Off meets the Bible in a peculiar world where all the male northerners are in work (The Full Mystery) and which is suffused by the plangent poundings of folk rock. The intention behind the event is to make people imaginatively identify with what it must have been like to believe. Again, though, I wonder to what extent its makers are fooling themselves here.

The young couple standing by me who snogged offhandedly throughout one of the most moving passages of the Crucifixion didn't seem so hot on historical empathy.

Performed with bracing energy, encompassing vigorous maypole and sword dances, this show brings home to youthe sheer repulsiveness of this story of the supposed tension between mercy and vengeance and of God's divine plan. Watching it, you realise that the divinity violates a whole series of key human rights, from visiting the sins of the father on the children to that loathsome "this is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you" routine, allowed to God the Father by the shabby ruse of his being consubstantial with Christ.

Harrison's thumping alliterative verse falls foul of the law of diminishing returns. It has many shadings but, by the end, the ear is so punch-drunk it all ends up sounding on the same level of intensity. The cast is excellent, especially Sue Johnstone in a variety of roles from Noah's wife to bereaved Mary, though the glossiness of her wig in this latter part is distractingly more the kind you'd wear for an Award Ceremony at the Savoy than the torture and Crucifixion of your only son.

I enjoy the possibility that back in those allegedly homogeneous medieval days, there were people who resisted the community blackmail of them and that sometimes you'd hear a chap say, "Well, frankly, I think these Mysteries are a bit overrated and so hard on the feet. Besides, I've got a pair of gloves to make. So I'm trotting back to the guild. Ta-ra". Over the centuries, I'd like to pat that man on the back.