The Critics: Let's hope that God looks like this

The Mysteries Cottesloe, London
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The Independent Culture
At this millennial moment, it seems only right that the National should rummage through its back catalogue and re-release one of its biggest hits. Tony Harrison's The Mysteries now joins Ted Hughes's version of The Oresteia in rep at the Cottesloe. This little space could be rechristened the South Bank's Yorkshire Playhouse.

As you enter the orange gloom of the studio, from which the seats have been removed, you start to pick out little flickering electric candles suspended from the ceiling in lamps, buckets, basins, dustbins, drums, colanders and cheese graters, yes, dozens of cheese graters. On the walls there are rows of dartboards, beer mats, manhole covers, insig-nia and tools.

The taste for groupings extends to the text. There's an awesome amount of alliteration about: traitors are tainted with treason, wonderful works have been wrought, a sore scene sinks in thy soul, at Bethany betimes my bale did begin, and folk are famished and feeble that fortune would feed.

Mystery once meant craft or trade, and The Mysteries were medieval plays performed by craftsmen. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Tony Harrison reclaimed and rewrote, adapted and arranged, snipped and shaped the York, Wakefield, Chester and Coventry cycles of Mystery plays.

The trilogy he creates out of this material, which can be seen in parts or all in a day, provided the National with a success that redefined the way we thought about early English drama. In the status war between North and South, between received pronunciation and local dialect, between Harrison and his teacher who called him a "barbarian", The Mysteries was a major coup.

The story alone couldn't be bigger: "The Nativity" takes us from the Creation to the Massacre of the Innocents; "The Passion" gives us Christ's Baptism through to his Crucifixion and "Doomsday" climaxes with the Last Judgement. But the trilogy is as much about the North of England, and the personalities of the craftsmen and tradesmen who staged these plays, as the religious material itself.

Bill Bryden's company succeeds brilliantly in balancing these aspects, treading a line between dignity and piety, simplicity and sophistication, while giving it a modern twist - not just with the rock band and the use of traffic cones for the crowns of the Three Kings and tyres for the camels they ride - but with contemporary types that never lapse.

Each scene carries the marks of its trade - most conspicuously when the butchers present the story of Abraham and Isaac, with the barrel-voiced Peter Armitage sharpening his knife over the carving board. In the Flood, John Normington and Sue Johnston play Mr and Mrs Noah, with Normington wearing pinstripe and bowler and Johnston in a housecoat putting on waterproofs to step into an ark that has been conjured out of benches and wooden ribs. Bryden achieves some remarkable transformations. The other actors enter the ark, using umbrellas to shelter from the rain. When the actors sit down, these umbrellas become the rolling motion of the sea and then the walls of the cages of each animal before turning into the flapping wings of the dove that is released. In another scene, a group of soldiers tie and then nail Jesus (Joe Duttine) to the cross, muttering and complaining, huffing and heaving, as if they had just been detailed to erect a garden shed.

No-one will begrudge David Bradley the role of God. If God does look like this, He won't disappoint. Bradley appears as a majestic old bird of prey who descends from his perch on a hydraulic lift and wanders earth in a donkey jacket, hard helmet and miner's lamp.

As Eve, Joanna Page looks as if (now she's eaten that apple) she will be the love-interest in a movie very soon. Jack Shepherd hoovers up the baddies - Lucifer, Judas and Satan - with sharp attack. And the three shepherds hunting down their missing sheep acquire a lovely intensity in the hands of Trevor Ray, John Tams and Iain Robertson.

From the outset the northern bonhomie has hit us like a warm blast and the beaming - sometimes beatific - faces of the audience suggest that their appreciation of this six-and-a-half hour journey isn't unduly complicated by theological anxieties. Only one group escape this inclusive spirit. As many of the promenaders joined hands with the cast to dance and run in to the centre and jump and clap, another thinner circle - the critics' circle - retreated to the outer perimeter with notebooks in hand.

Few trips to the theatre allow an audience the chance to sit next to Eve, crouch in front of Jesus and brush shoulders with God. Pretty soon you notice it is always the same dozen people who are standing right at the front. It was only when I couldn't see the birth of the baby (not unimportant, in this context) and had it described to me later as a beautiful Blue Peter moment, where Mary creates the figure of Jesus out of pieces of white cloth, that I abandoned courtesies and muscled in with the dirty dozen. Every time the actors gestured to the audience to move back a little, and the audience dutifully shuffled back, that was the cue to surge forward and grab a good position. If you want to see everything that is going on in The Mysteries, it's important to learn some fairly un-Christian tactics.

`The Mysteries': RNT Cottesloe, SE1 (020 7452 3400) in rep to April

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