Mystery tour

Church pews continue to empty, but four versions of the Mystery Plays are to run this year. Robert Hanks asks their directors why they are reviving the Biblical stories
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The Independent Culture
For well over a century now, it's been widely reported that God is dead, the sea of faith is on the ebb and Jesus saves Green Shield stamps. And while surveys show that spirituality and personal faith may not have waned, the church pews go on getting emptier. In this context, it's mildly surprising to notice a sudden upsurge of interest in the Mystery Plays - the cycles of Biblical stories, performed by members of various guilds in towns and cities around England, whose heyday was between 1400 and 1600.

After 300 years in the cold, the Mysteries have been revived in our own century - York and Chester regularly perform their cycles (the two most complete extant); and in the Eighties, Bill Bryden's National Theatre production, to a text by Tony Harrison, was a landmark in modern theatre.

But no less than five major versions of the Mystery Plays will be running over the next four months - a statistical hump that prompts the question: why? It's surely not enough to point, as almost everybody I spoke to did, at the "directness and simplicity" of the Mysteries. So, is it just an interest in a forgotten phase in theatrical history? Is it vague pre-millennial apprehension that if the second coming is going to happen, it may well be now? Perhaps it's relevant that, while several of the directors and adapters I spoke to mentioned the Tony Harrison Mysteries as a reference point, two of them also picked up Peter Brook's version of The Mahabharata: perhaps what these versions share is a feeling that, if we're going to achieve any sense of the mythic and the sacred, any sense of mystery, it has to be through these stories, these plays.

The Passion, Northcott Theatre, Exeter

Like Richard Williams, John Durnin, director of The Passion, is drawn to the Mystery Plays by their theatrical potential rather than their religious message. But he sees these possibilities in different terms - as "a form of theatrical storytelling that we have lost. It's one that depends on a different set of conventions in the relationship between the performers and the community to whom they perform." In a touring production, which is going to be wandering around the South-west for three weeks, recreating that sense of community is impossible; but in promenade performances, with the cast pushing a cart around, Durnin still intends to set up "very direct interaction between the actors and the audience": what he hopes for is something close to pantomime, where audiences will feel involved enough to boo Judas, and help Jesus when he stumbles on the road to Calvary.

However secular his intentions, though, religion will still rear its ugly head: because of "a certain faith connection that Christian members of the audience might have", a link bound to be strengthened by the fact that his pared down version of the York Cycle, covering the events from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion, will be performed in the run-up to Easter. On Good Friday, at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, it will replace the usual Stations of the Cross service.

But he insists: "If you are atheist or agnostic, or your faith is not a Christian faith, I think it's perfectly possible to experience the passion sequence and be moved, uplifted, enjoy the jokes and feel that you have undergone an exciting theatrical journey."

The Chester Mystery Plays

`I'm a Hungarian," George Roman announces. "I lived through a world war and a couple of revolutions; and I found that this material, which was written in the 1400s, is inspiring, inspirational stuff."

Unlike Richard Williams, who fears the "quaintness" of the plays, Roman sees them as timeless. To bring home the relevance, he has attempted to find contemporary equivalents for the medieval originals. His version of the Chester cycle - which was revived in the Fifties and has been performed every five years since then - draws on local groups rather than the ancient guilds: one of the plays will be performed by a disabled group, another by school students, others by local am-dram societies. The Temptation is staged as a game-show, with the Devil a Bob Monkhouse figure; the Massacre of the Innocents is set in a railway siding in eastern Europe (no squeamishness here about the anti-Semitism of the originals); Abraham is a wealthy farmer with an Aga in the kitchen.

"People can direct it as if they were cheap Christmas cards. Or you can say that this is telling us about human anxiety, human hope, wisdom or failure; or how similar things happen to us, we are confronted with similar choices and we fail as our predecessors failed - or sometimes we succeed a little bit."

The Creation and The Passion, RSC

Of all the people I spoke to, Edward Kemp, the adapter of The Creation and The Passion, seemed to have given the deepest, most searching thought to the reasons for reviving the plays. Whether this did him any good is another matter, since he ended up discarding all his original reasons and settling for some rather less convincing ones.

The project grew out of a conversation between himself and the director, Katie Mitchell, six years ago: "Our starting point was to look at the Mysteries absolutely in the context of when they were written, to see what they would teach us about those times."

When the project finally got underway, a year ago, that idea quickly evaporated. There were two problems with trying to present an authentic medieval Mystery cycle. First, "the actors were involved in this strange conceit, where they had to imagine they were a medieval shipwright before they could begin to play Noah. The problem of playing Noah, the problem of playing God, seemed to be more interesting than going through the medieval screen to get to it." Secondly, the Mysteries come with their own built- in ideology - "Which is basically medieval Catholicism, which carries often an overt anti-Semitism, and an overt anti-Islamicism, which we couldn't cope with."

They decided to go beyond the Mysteries, and take the Bible as their source, a decision that meant throwing out some episodes (Lucifer's Fall, the Harrowing of Hell); they also discarded other episodes - the Massacre of the Innocents - which modern scholarship has established could not have happened. So what we have is a thoroughly modern version of the Bible stories, told in medieval language - the justification being the "directness and simplicity" this permits.

In the end, the justification for these Mysteries is that they provided "an opportunity to look at stories from our own culture. I think we've become quite good at looking at stories from other cultures" - he instances Brook's Mahabharata. But Kemp also notes that at previews "we've had quite a lot of young people, and people who clearly don't know how it's going to turn out, and they seem quite wrapped up in what's going on". When they don't know how the stories are going to turn out, though, you have to ask: are these our stories any longer?n

Northcott Theatre's `The Passion', on tour 10-28 Mar (01392 493493); Chester Mystery Plays, 30 Jun-16 Jul (01244 340392); `The Mysteries', Unicorn Arts Theatre, London WC2, from 8 Mar-13 Apr (0171-836 2132); `The Creation' and `The Passion', the Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 7 Mar to Aug (01789 295623). Edward Kemp's scripts are published by Nick Hern Books at pounds 2.99 each

The Mysteries, Unicorn Arts Theatre, London

There's no theological havering from Richard Williams, when asked what led him to direct and adapt The Mysteries: "They lend themselves to such strong theatrical treatment." For him the appeal lies in language and narrative rather than message.

His Mysteries - an eclectic selection from all the cycles, running from the Creation all the way to the Day of Judgement - was premiered at the City of London Festival last summer and returns to London this weekend after a stint in Liverpool. Here, the medieval drama is punctuated by African-American spirituals (chosen and arranged by the pianist Joanna McGregor): "They tell the same stories, and I think they've got a very similar sort of origin. It's not necessarily the orthodox view, it isn't as written by the clergy, it's the story as interpreted by laymen. And there's an overlap in linguistic approach - a boldness and directness in both that makes them sit very well together."

The problem confronting the modern director, as he sees it, is avoiding "quaintness" - it's easy to patronise the plays (one reason why his cast are dressed in plain white shirts and black trousers).

For all that, the plays' religious significance does seem to seep through to the audience: in Liverpool, performances became a target for Big Issue sellers, who found punters were left in a highly charitable frame of mind. For Williams himself, any change in attitude came not from the drama, but from meeting clergymen for the first time in years, and seeing, especially on Merseyside, the kinds of problems they encounter: "Having approached it as being something good to plunder from a theatrical perspective - that this would make a good show - I ended up feeling that this is the religion I was brought up in, it's one I moved away from, but I can treat it with more respect."