Theatre: York Cycle of Mystery Plays York Theatre Royal

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The Independent Culture
Like the World Cup and the Olympics, the York Cycle of Mystery Plays comes round once every four years, performed in its native town by a large cast of predominantly amateur locals who thereby offer an approximate equivalent of the medieval craft guilds who originally mounted these biblical dramas. Every four years, too, there seems to be an obligatory press controversy. When I last saw the cycle in 1988, the talking-point was that the Jesus was a professional Hindu actor brought over from India. This year, the chattering classes have got their chasubles in a twist over the casting of a woman as God the Father.

Well, sexual equality means having to take the rough with the smooth and getting a turn to play the vengeful being who creates a species and helpfully equips it with the freedom to be dammed for all eternity might be judged as taking the rough. With her matronly figure and middle-class tones, Ruth Ford's God seems altogether too nice a figure, sitting atop her giant ladder-throne in her shiny golden cassock, to expel Adam and Eve from Eden for dietary irregularity or to allow Her only son to be crucified in order to establish a cure for the long indigestion that has followed. You feel that this God would offer you a cup of tea and some counselling rather than patriarchal wrath.

A production of the cycle needs both to impart a sense of awe at the story's cosmic dimensions and to communicate the homely comedy that frequently humanises its dramatisation. John Doyle's good-looking staging is marginally more successful at the latter than the former. Not that the comedy is always comfortable. "I'm hurt. Me back's buggered," moans one of the workmen, lifting up Christ (Rory Mulvihill) on the cross in the heavily alliterative medieval 'n' modern adaptation by Liz Lochhead. Talking of the job purely in terms of its technicalities, as if they were hanging a picture rather than the son of God, these men have a function not unlike that of the grave-diggers in Hamlet.

With ingenious economy, Mark Bailey's design gives simple objects a witty versatility - differently sized ladders, say, evoke the camels of the Three Kings, the crosses of the thieves flanking Christ and the pinnacle whereon the Redeemer is tempted by Satan. On the musical side, attractively arranged songs push the story forward, as when the Apostles sing a re- written version of "Green Grow the Rushes-O". As in some paintings by Stanley Spencer, "now" and "then" are elided (Mary, for example, starts off as a modern nurse) and geographical distinctions jumbled up (the Three Kings, while orientally garbed, are an Irishman, a Scotsman and a Welshman).

In the task of suggesting universality, York is at a disadvantage because of its overwhelmingly white population: there's not a single coloured face in the cast. But these days, perhaps large multi-racial ensembles are associated less with the brotherhood of man than with the attempt to sell mankind ever larger quantities of Coke.

n To 30 June. Booking: 01904 623568