Theatre: No mystery, just a hell of a muddle

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The Mysteries: Royal Shakespeare Company

The Pit at The Barbican

"Tis all a muddle," says the victim-hero towards the end of Hard Times, Dickens' grim novel of life in the industrial North. It was the drab Victorian workmen's clothes in the Genesis scenes of the RSC's production of The Mysteries which brought the line to mind. For the rich and colourful tapestry of the Old Testament, together with the humour and vivacity of the original medieval mystery plays, has been bleached out and the scriptural landscape reduced to a harsh, mean, rather sour world in which a capricious God constantly puts people to the test. But as the story unfolds it does indeed become a muddle, which is far from the same thing as a mystery.

Part of the problem is the way that the adaptor, Edward Kemp, has messed about with the story. Some changes seem harmless, if without purpose. He has botched Moses and Solomon together in a composite character. He has altered the name of Bathsheba's husband from Uriah to Gideon. And he has bewilderingly changed Judith from a seductress who kills a foreign general and brings victory for her people into a nurse whose action brings destruction upon her own city. But other changes are both theologically illiterate and dramatically inconsistent.

Director Katie Mitchell's God is an amiable but capricious - and occasionally irritable - old man, played by David Ryall as if he were a Clegg who has lost his Compo and Foggy. But because Kemp has decided to abolish the Devil, the Archangel Lucifer is reduced to a mere helpmeet, discharging the divine will for good and ill, in a way which is sometimes determinist and at others merely Manichean. From there on the inconsistencies flow. Kemp's Jesus is undoubtedly God, and yet is not resurrected. And the imagery of the tree of life - which is vivid when Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise, and which Mary takes up during the Annunciation - vanishes after that instead of being resolved in the Crucifixion, without which the earlier expositions entirely lack dramatic purpose.

The production has its moments - with good performances from the ensemble company in the graphic story of the man who cuts his raped wife's corpse into 10 pieces and in the invented past of John the Baptist. There is a fine moment when Jesus resurrects Lazarus in a fit of exasperation when the dead man's sister refuses to accept Jesus's bland assurance that "Lazarus lives on - in our memories". But in a production that is five hours long the good bits are few and far between. For the rest there are hefty bursts of cliches (menacing flashing neon and helicopter sound effects), tedious doses of gore (the protracted severing of Holofernes' head) and a terrifyingly banal monosyllabic monologue as Mary gives birth ("God... hate... angel... " etc, etc) the chief purpose of which seems to be to let us see the virginal knickers come off.

Kemp has wrenched every Old Testament story into the same template in which the story is counterpointed with a querulous under-tow of dissent - as when Job ends his talk with God in a huff that is entirely lacking in the original. Kemp's message seems to be that no one can now seriously believe in the God in the Old Testament - with his whims, wrath and angels with cheap conjuring tricks. Yet his replacement is just Jesus the Good Bloke - a perceptive, spiritual social worker with the carey-sharey vocabulary of the modern evangelical vicar keen to emphasise how in tune with the modern world he is. It is a vapid restatement of old truths with no new insights, metaphors and no new illumination. Overall, although the high priest has quite an interesting diatribe on why freedom is bad for people and religion keeps them happy, the quality of the dramatic writing is surprisingly poor throughout.

In the end Peter, instead of becoming leader of the emerging church, kills himself - which is rather like letting Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after. In the final scene Mary Magdalene rather lamely announces that God does exist - and that he is to be found in everyone. The play thus ends simultaneously denying and affirming the existence of God in an existentialist landscape which is as humourless, sterile and devoid of all joy as the rest of the play has been. There is no mystery here, only muddle and the puzzle of how something as meagre could have got onto an RSC stage in the first place.

Paul Vallely