Meanings of Christmas: The mysterious radical Bible we never had

A God who is on the side of the people is the gift which Bill Bryden discovers among the militant atheism of the National Theatre's Mystery cycle
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The Independent Culture
AT LAST! A Millennium event that makes you want to shout - yes, I was there! Bill Bryden's production of The Mysteries is back at the National Theatre in London. It turns the text of the medieval Mystery Plays into a powerful, unabashed celebration of orthodox Christian belief. It comes in three magnificent sections - Nativity, Passion and Doomsday. It has a boisterous, driving text by Tony Harrison, the poet and classical scholar, who confesses that his theological education happened at Cross Flats Methodist Sunday School in Leeds, and describes himself as "militantly anti-religious".

His intention was to reclaim a classical northern text in the face of southern disdain. The accents are wholly Yorkshire, and the set is tricked out in 1950s work-gear and trade union banners. At first I feared that modern socialism was being smuggled in here - but I checked the original text, and Harrison follows it faithfully and creatively. It works wonderfully. The audience doesn't sit, they stand - and kneel, and sometimes jump for safety as the action whirls among them.

Of the three, Nativity is the must-see show this Christmas. It unfolds the purpose of God from Creation to the birth of Christ. It's a compelling celebration of traditional Christianity, including the bits that make modern liberals queasy. Before the Creation, God and the angels sit atop forklift trucks. Lucifer's pride and ambition cause his fall, and as his forklift descends, he is tipped into a steel-making crucible. Adam and Eve must take the prize for the Longest Nude Scene in Theatrical History. Cain and Abel, Noah and his wife, Abraham and Isaac get similarly robust treatment.

But this last story goes deeper. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac for no given reason. The father prepares to obey, and Isaac acquiesces. and a butcher's block is fetched for the slaughter. God makes the point; Abraham's son is saved, but God's own son will not be spared as He does what is necessary for the salvation of erring humankind.

We move immediately to the Annunciation; Joseph and Mary, angels, shepherds and kings all combine to renew the over-familiar story. Lots of knockabout humour is laid on through Mak, a medieval Jack the Lad, and the thuggish Herod and his nerdy son. Herod (and later Pilate) are prince- villains, as are their knightly henchmen. The piece combines brilliantly all the elements of drama and pantomime. Herod is a hoot, but the slaughter of the innocents is a horror. The Christ-child is duly born - a tender moment in surrounding chaos. But he is born to die, so that death might have no more power over humanity. That's the tale told in the Passion; Doomsday tells of the apostles preaching to the world, culminating in the Last Judgement.

When the whole thing was put on for the critics, they were at least as interested in the theology as in the production - quite an achievement. Some found this archaic world repulsive. Its God is evidently a Bronze Age genocidal despot, who punishes humanity for Adam's sin, and so breaks His own biblical rules - that the sins of the fathers shall not be visited on their children. And a clever theatrical ploy with Abraham and Isaac does not make the need for His son's sacrificial death any clearer. This God's universe is morally empty. His final act of extermination, the Last Judgement, is especially gross; to be loved by this God is like being hated by anybody else.

But that is a superficial judgement, the others argued. Christians have always recognised the philosophical and moral limitations of their story - hence the need for philosophy and ethics. Only the stupid, the clergy and modern pseudo-scientific man have ever taken it all literally. Indeed, yes, modern American fundamentalism is really scary. But The Mysteries celebrate the fact that God is on the side of vulnerable humanity, despite the apparent power of Satan, Herod, Pilate and the Jewish hierarchy (always presented in medieval times as bishops). God in Christ has given us an alternative to realpolitik. Despite the oppressive facts - including the fact of the Church - God is with His people. In this perspective, the Last Judgement is a joke about judgement. Salvation's not that hard - the sheep and the goats are separated simply because they have been kind to folk - or not. "You mean that's all we had to do?" is the implied punchline, as dreadful realisation dawns on the faces of the damned.

Christian orthodoxy does confront us with the reality of human pride, vanity and ambition. It is deeply ironic that shallow modernity has failed to confront evil, in this most evil of centuries. We shall not get far into the next millennium if we do not engage imaginatively with the robust wisdom of the Christian tradition. Again, ironically, that wisdom shines through this production, while it is the Fifties socialist trappings that look antique.

Tony Harrison has given us a work of serious scholarship and great art - it ranks with Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew as a reclamation of the faith, in which God is not just on the side of the angels, but of the people. It sharpens the edge of a subversive celebration that really was paraded about the streets of York and Wakefield six centuries ago. It is the radical Bible we never had. It's a fantastic Christmas gift, and a fierce blast of confidence to propel us into the third millennium. Go! Enjoy!