Theatre: How the Mysteries lost God and found religion, man

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When you've axed

Satan and exonerated the Jews for Jesus'

death, how much of a mystery have you really got left? Paul Taylor investigates the RSC's latest reworking of

the medieval biblical dramas.

In the beginning there were The Mysteries in Stratford. And Edward Kemp, the dramaturge, and Katie Mitchell, the director, beheld them and saw that they were good - but not good enough. If God were ever to revise His creation (in our dreams, mate) this would be the closest parallel to the arduous process that has gone on between the long opening performance of this project in March 1997 in Stratford and the premiere, tonight in The Pit at the Barbican, of the new, heavily emended London version. One might just hope, though, that God, should He ever take such a corrective course, would be a shade more decisive.

Both before and after Stratford, the Mitchell/Kemp Mysteries have generated a certain amount of crude publicity, of the kind - only more so - that any modern staging of these medieval plays tends to attract. For example, every four years, like the World Cup and the Olympics, the York Cycle of Mystery Plays comes round, presented by a large community of amateurs - the approximate equivalent of the craft guilds which originally mounted these biblical dramas. And, every four years, there's some slightly cooked- up news angle on the casting of the Deity.

In 1988, the talking point was that Jesus was played by a professional Hindu star actor, brought across from India. In 1996, the chattering classes got their chasubles in a twist over the assigning of the role of God the Father to a matronly, very middle-class white woman. It was an ambiguous blow, that, for positive discrimination. In terms of sexual equality, getting a turn to play the vengeful being who creates a species and then helpfully equips it with the freedom to be damned for all eternity must be judged as a case of having to take the rough with the smooth.

The Mitchell/Kemp Mysteries found themselves fodder for the news pages on account of their towering political correctness. Not so much BC as PC, the original version was ecumenical to a fault, or to the point of it being a bit of a mystery why the project was called The Mysteries.

Unprepared to let mankind off the hook by dumping sin and evil on to a scapegoat Satan figure, The Mysteries Mark I got rid of the Devil, and, by a complementary manuvre, removed all references to Jews, so that responsibility for killing Christ could not be pinned on any one race or religious sect.

Edward Kemp gave a hostage to fortune (or made a smart marketing move) in alluding to the Gospels themselves as "fraught with ideologically unsavoury baggage". Indeed, from a publicity department's point of view, Kemp is dream material. His father is the Bishop of Chichester; his grandfather was a bishop. Enough to make the minds of cheap journalists foam with trumped-up Oedipal scenarios.

Facially and conversationally, Kemp too seems to have the bishop gene: all gas and T-shirt. If you were doing an amateur production of Racing Demon, the David Hare C of E play, you'd beg him to join in. He describes himself as "a devout atheist", has a tendency to say "Yeah, absolutely" to most of your remarks in that eager-to-share Anglican manner, and he now finds himself once again the focus of controversy.

"A bishop's son," reported the Religion Correspondent of The Times, "has written a 20th-century version of the medieval mystery plays in which Jesus is a homeless beggar, St Peter is a foul-mouthed mugger, Mary Magdalene is a prostitute and St Matthew is a commodities broker who lives in Kensington." Items have appeared in organs which, when they coyly print "F-word", always mean "fuck" rather "faith", which is what the show is actually preoccupied with. But there's a thoughtful article by David Nathan in the Jewish Chronicle, which, while clearly relieved that the anti-Semitism is gone, asks a shrewd basic question of this re-angled material: "How do we understand the consequences of belief if the causes are expunged?"

First, though, I want to know why the piece has been so radically re- written. It emerges that precisely what I took to be the source of the production's power when I first saw it in Stratford turned out, in the course of the run there, to be a liability. Katie Mitchell's productions - her RSC staging of Euripides' Phoenician Women in particular - have always been informed by an almost religious intensity, and ensemble work of the utmost dedication. At the press showing, this bore, I felt, particularly beautiful fruit in the production's depiction of Jesus' ministry. The disciples in The Mysteries Mark I were involved in and with Christ with such a silent, rapt yet realistic attentiveness that the show, in one sense, didn't need an audience. Paradoxically, that pulled you in, when it worked. The trouble was: it often didn't.

More than most theatrical endeavours, The Mysteries (medieval and modern) take on an added parabolic element because of the conditions of their creation. The Tony Harrison version at the National in the 1980s celebrated the plays as, in Kemp's words, "wonderful outpourings of the communal spirit, giving theatre back to the people". As the Kemp/Mitchell Mysteries evolved in their original manifestation, they became a reflection of religion in the root sense of the word: a "binding together". The long four-month rehearsal process had clearly bound this company together. And there's a parable in that, for, as Edward Kemp now muses, in order for that spirit to be sustained, "you would need to be working in the conditions that Peter Brook works in, so that you have an ensemble that have actually given up their lives to do only this piece of work the whole time." While the RSC is the one company in Britain where Mitchell and Kemp could have created this piece, it is also a rep where actors are needed for other shows. The Mysteries, it appears, was a hard piece for performers to come back to. There wasn't enough text to keep it resilient and, as a result, there were even audibility problems.

Debate may have raged in the rehearsal room, but it didn't on stage. The re-write is partly an attempt to remedy that. There are hangovers from the original (the title, the episodic structure, etc) but the piece is also an elaborate admission that the medieval mysteries proved to be "the wrong door" for the kind of treatment of the Bible story Kemp and Mitchell eventually realised they were after.

Having read a draft of the new version, I'm left wondering whether there's another hangover, in a sense that this work is still collective. To get the debate going, Kemp held "surgeries" with the actors and roped in and adapted material from such sources as Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and the poetry of Rilke. His Satan - who "is not wild about human beings in the first place because he thinks they are going to screw things up" and who, in this revision, is the figure who gives man the seeds from which to develop an alternative and more rooted Tree of Life - appears to have read The Brothers Karamazov and at one point virtually quotes Brecht.

It's arguable, though, that what the project needs, particularly with the new "Jesus, Our Contemporary" slant, is the ruthless egotism of the single artistic vision. For example, Dennis Potter's Jesus in Son of Man has more than a smack of Dennis Potter in his scathing, pain-wracked, anti-establishment manner. A long roster of writers, from Gore Vidal to Jim Crace, have recently re-made the Bible story in their own creative image and likeness. Or people have done bits of it. Harrison Birtwistle, it's rumoured, is setting the Last Supper to music. Neil Bartlett, in The Seven Sacraments of Nicolas Poussin, inserted himself - a gay, late- 20th-century man - into the very non-gay sacramental scheme of things and threw up fascinating anomalies and conjunctions, and instances of inclusion and exclusion.

With a director as powerful as Katie Mitchell, the likelihood has to be strong that this new version will possess the creative identity on stage that is oddly lacking in it on the page. Very keen that he should not arouse faith by the demeaning stunt of performing miracles ("the miracle is a chain for a slave"), their homeless beggar Jesus comes over as a cross between Sherlock Holmes or maybe Cracker (he can deduce a lot, spookily, from the things he notices about people) and a rather irritating social worker. He is both God and man, but, according to these plays, the god-in-man in all people is what we should be striving to locate and to act upon. "For me," argues Kemp, "it's important that the play ends with, on the one hand, Mary Magdalene saying that we can all be God and make something that is good and Peter going off and killing himself."

To reverse Hannah Arendt's phrase, it's the banality of goodness that can impress you, if your sense of the evil that opposes it gets muffled. Goodness, like happiness, writes white. Or does it? I tell Kemp that the most Christ-like person I have heard of lately is the doctor who is experimenting on himself in the search for a vaccine against Aids. That really is taking on the suffering of the world in a way selfless to the point of suicide. Kemp tells me of the film Jesus of Montreal, where, in a rather similar medical-metaphor way, the Jesus-figure's death gives life through organ donation. Wouldn't schizophrenia, I argue, have been an interesting way of tackling the tussle of identity in this penniless vagrant Jesus, except that here he would slowly awaken to the intense sanity of proven knowledge that he is God?

At times, this long, often fascinating and risky work seems to want to turn into a meditation on the changing artistic representations there have been of the Biblical story, and to contain within itself the evolution to a religion of humanity. One would love to see a review of it written by Milton's Satan or the Pontius Pilate of The Master and Margarita (who, with adjustments, features in the piece). The project also furnishes, as Kemp points out, an example of how, in this country - as opposed to, say, Russia or the Paris of Peter Brook - you have to start marketing something before you know what it is you'll end up with. That they are still working out what it is they have got could communicate itself to an audience as excitement or as self-bewilderment. The charge that they are patronising the past, in the cuts and in the desire to offend nobody, can be avoided if the production feels like a healing enrichment of its own present - as it certainly did at that press showing in Stratford. The Mysteries, though, is now more than ever a misnomer, and that's the Gospel truth.

`The Mysteries' (five and a half hours, incl two intervals) opens at 5pm tonight in The Pit, Barbican Centre, London EC2. Booking: 0171-638 8891