It is a dozen years since the last staging of the YorkMystery Plays and two dozen since they were performed against the magical backdrop of St Mary’s Abbey.
The sense of history pervades the ruined setting while the people York – 2,000 in total – who took part in front and backstage roles are inheritors of a proud tradition dating back two centuries before the dissolution of the monasteries when the abbey was the wealthy symbol of Benedictine power.
The Mystery Plays are an awesome undertaking. Just two professional actors anchor a community cast of 500 including choir and brass band divided into two revolving teams of players – the Carpenters and the Potters.
Before the tradition was revived in 1951 it fell to the craftsmen’s guilds of the city – the butchers, the saddlers, the girdlers and nailers etc – to enact the short scenes taken from the Old and New Testaments in the language of mediaeval Yorkshire.
In those days they were performed on carts at various locations across the city from dawn until dusk. The text has been left largely intact by the writer Mike Kenny and that is a good thing.
The language is rich and trips off the tongues of the volunteer actors who give up their summers to bring the plays to life. The performances are excellent – particularly Frances Simon as Gabriel, Paul Osborne as Noah, and Anna Robinson as the young Eve.
Ferdinand Kingsley is outstanding as God and Jesus as he battles a suitably dissembling Coronation Street-baddie Graeme Hawley in the contest between good and evil.
The director Paul Burbridge’s production draws on the imagery of Stanley Spencer, placing the stories in a second World War context. Herod is a strutting Mussolini while the Flight to Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents recall the horrors of civilian wartime experience.
There are some pleasing and colourful tableaux – not least when the vast stage is full of the 250-strong ensemble. By the second half, as the light fades and the abbey ruins are illuminated, the atmosphere heightens, the pace quickens and the scenes come thick and fast. The harrowing of hell is an oil painting acted out under the stars.
The Mystery Plays are one of York’s great traditions put on at no cost to the theatrical community of the city. Long may they continue.
To 27 August (01904 623568)
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