Theatre: The greatest story ever told

It made theatre history - and now it's back. Stephen Fay goes behind the scenes of `The Mysteries'

Stephen Fay
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:30

The magic returns, even in a rehearsal room. The cast is working behind the fire curtain in the Lyttelton Theatre. Brick walls are painted black and a balcony surrounds the acting area, which is cluttered by props: three camels made out of rubber tyres, an apple tree, the keel of a boat. A stagehand manoeuvres a fork-lift truck, which carries God, high above the floor. "Ego sum alpha et omega," He announces. The journey that starts at the Creation and ends on Doomsday has begun once more.

The actors are in their rehearsal gear: tracksuit trousers and T-shirts, trainers with thick soles. Early on in rehearsals, Jesus tucked his script into the back of his jeans. The National Theatre is reviving one of its legendary hits, the three-part cycle of medieval mystery plays, starting with The Nativity, which was first performed on Easter Saturday 1977. It was followed by The Passion, and Doomsday, which completed the cycle in 1985, when it got rave reviews. ("A masterpiece" - the Daily Telegraph; "magnificent," - the Times.)

The stocky figure in the blue cotton boiler suit is Tony Harrison, the Yorkshire poet who wrote The Mysteries, taking stories from the medieval cycles played in York, Wakefield and Coventry, and retaining the northern accent in heavily alliterative and rhythmic verse. First time round, Harrison was rewriting during hectic rehearsals when time was as short as money. Now that the text is set, he has the time to coach the actors. Some still find it difficult to get their tongues round unfamiliar words. "I'm the man who has come to read the metre," Harrison says.

Bill Bryden, the director, sits in a director's chair, smoking, giving occasional instructions in a hoarse voice. He is an elegant figure, black- haired, slim with long legs. He seems to have aged hardly at all since he was last at the National, and that was almost 10 years ago. (Under Richard Eyre's regime, he says, "I just kind of faded out.") His old stage- manager is delighted to have him back: "He's a shot in the arm." Bryden is a Scot whose particular skill is turning individuals into teams of actors: "I'm a follower of Alex Ferguson rather than Constantin Stanislavski."

The designer is Bill Dudley, who comes from Islington. He wears a scarf indoors and, now that his hair is turning silver, he could audition for a revival of Dr Who. Dudley's ingenuity is irrepressible. His entrance to hell is the jaws of a garbage truck. In Noah's Ark, he places Noah and his shrewish wife on wooden benches. Along the sides of the craft, sitting on wooden ribs attached to a keel, are 14 actors, each holding an open umbrella. To suggest the swell of the flood, the umbrellas are moved in unison, up on one side, down on the other as Noah sways to retain his balance. Animal noises and birdsong come from behind the umbrellas, and when the dove flies away, the sound from an umbrella being open and shut quickly is just like the fluttering of a bird's wings. It is brilliant and unforgettable. Even so, Dudley is the one who is finding it hardest to recapture the spirit of '77: "The Mysteries was the most important thing I've done. That's why it's so hard reviving it."

The idea of redoing The Mysteries at the millennium came originally from Nobby Clark, who photographed the original production. Roger Chapman, the NT's director of touring, took the notion to the National's director, Trevor Nunn, who thought the only question was whether the plays should unfold again in the capacious Olivier Theatre, or in the tiny Cottesloe. "The simplest solution was to put it back where it belonged," says Dudley. And, of course, The Mysteries belongs in the Cottesloe, the NT's open acting space, 70 feet by 40 feet, surrounded by a gallery, with a capacity of only 400. The audience is seated on three sides, or, alternatively, it joins the actors on the floor itself.

Being made to mingle with a crowd means that, for the actors, each night is different. Trevor Ray, a veteran Bryden team player, has experience of the problems the promenaders pose. "I speak the first word after the exit of the camels. The word is `But' ... " If you can draw attention to that, the rest is easy. In medieval times, cycles of mystery plays were performed on pageant carts, from which amateur actors played the same scene in various parts of the city. A crowd standing in one place would see the Bible story acted out on different carts, each sponsored, as it were, by a local guild or trade union. The carpenters told the story of Noah's Ark; the nailmakers dealt with the crucifixion; and the Last Supper belonged to the bakers. The working men who performed the mystery cycles are the production team's inspiration.

Harrison is an atheist (which inspires a peculiarly Scottish response from Bryden: "Aye, but is he a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?"). But Harrison loves the Bible story: "It is a brilliant dramatic device embedded in Christianity - to send God down to earth. The story is full of human dilemmas as well as religious ones." Bryden has not entirely abandoned a Church of Scotland upbringing, but for both him and Dudley the inspiration of The Mysteries is folk culture rather than religion. Dudley is fiercely possessive about the style of Bryden's memorable original production. "It was rooted in the political theatre of the 1970s. We were working-class, from Yorkshire, Scotland and London, interested in what theatre could do. We revered plays with a lot of argument." The vigorous musical accompaniment is designed to make The Mysteries a popular entertainment. It is organised by John Tams, whose long, straight hair makes him look like a Victorian image of Christ. He has used his original score, which was composed of English pagan dance music (for the sword dance), melodies from medieval hymn tunes, and spirituals - all played no less rhythmically than the verse. The Nativity opens with a polka danced by actors in the uniforms and overalls of butchers, firemen, construction workers and more. The props are items that litter the workplace: the fork-lift trucks, a saw donkey for a donkey; the contents of the tool bag. Dudley is concerned that a generation of theatregoers will not recognise the significance of some of the props. To establish the relationship between medieval workers and their 20th-century successors, Dudley sets the revival in the Fifties, when school-leavers became apprentices and trade unions carried clout, as the guilds had done. But he worries about being out of touch with the feelings of young people in the audience today. Harrison recalls that God in the 1970s wore a miner's lamp - that was when there were still enough miners to make it a stock image.

"The end of the unions makes it more poignant. Christianity and socialism have both disappeared since we first did the plays," says Harrison in a matter-of-fact tone, as if to emphasise the drama of the idea that it's the world that has changed, not The Mysteries. When rehearsals began at the end of September, Harrison's initial feeling was one of sadness. Four members of the original cast have died. Brian Glover had spoken the word of God in a commanding Yorkshire accent; Sir Robert Stephens had been a tipsy villain; Derek Newark and Mark McManus had been stalwarts of Bryden's old team. There were, however, three members of the original cast back in action. David Bradley has the forbidding task of succeeding Glover as God. Jack Shepherd plays a bold Lucifer and a shrinking Judas, and Ray is back as both a shepherd and a soldier.

The freshly cast members of the company were in awe of the veterans. Cathryn Bradshaw, who plays the Virgin Mary, noted a feeling of us-and- them at the outset: "Jack and David were so brilliant at the start. They could both have gone on the following day, and that was scary." She has clearly got over her nerves. Dressed in a grey cardigan, skirt and black stockings, Bradshaw is not the demure Virgin of a Renaissance painting, but she conveys a girlish innocence: "I don't approach her as I would a character in a play," she says. "You just have to be an ordinary person yourself."

This is easier for Bradshaw, because she is a Blackpool girl, and in The Mysteries she is able to drop the classless intonation that was drummed into her the Bristol Old Vic. She says she can hear the heartbeat of the music in the text. Harrison listens out for the vowels; he insisted that God and Jesus must have northern accents. The Virgin Mary with a Lancashire accent is a bonus.

Bryden believes that the predominance of northern voices will increase the authenticity of this production. His concern is to eradicate all sentimentality. In his notes to actors, he says: "Always play against the feeling. Let the audience do the weeping and laughing." Dudley believes the Passion is now clearer and more emotional than last time round. Trevor Ray finds it more actorly this time, but that means it will be better spoken. Harrison talks of the rhythm of listening. It is a mystery how words - archaic medieval words like "malison", "ilka", "flite" - which might be incomprehensible on the page should be understood when spoken on the stage. That is part of the magic.

`The Mysteries': Cottesloe, National Theatre (0171-452 3000); previews for `The Nativity' start on 7 Dec; for `The Passion' on 13 Dec; and for `Doomsday' on 16 Dec. The whole cycle will be played on 18 Dec. After that the three plays are in rep to May

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