York Mystery Plays' Triumphant Return to St Mary's Abbey


Photo courtesy of The Guardian

Martin Wainwright, The Guardian, August 9, 2012

For the first time since 1988, the York Mystery Plays have returned to their natural, outdoor setting amid the ruins of St Mary's abbey. Their home-coming is a triumph.

The delicate tracery of windows ruined during the Reformation, when the plays were also dismantled then banned and neglected for nearly 300 years, provides a gateway from which God creates first the universe and then Earth, the latter twice.

Exasperated by his misbehaving mortals, the lord of everything – Ferdinand Kingsley from the National Theatre et al and son of Oscar winner Sir Ben - sends the Flood, portrayed by a sea of bobbing blue and black umbrellas, to wreck an Eden of fruit-laden topiary whose inhabitants persistently brawl. Originally performed on mediaeval carts trundling round the city, the effects are exuberantly ingenious and described in muscular 14th century Yorkshire prose and verse.

"Nay, Noah, I am not best-pleased," says Noah's wife as her husband embarks on the apparently crazed task of building an enormous ship in a month. Later, at the supreme moment of the Biblical story, Joseph asks his young wife in the stable: "What is that thing upon thy knee?" The word "nowt" is the commonest in the script, by far.

Telling a story which everyone knows is both a strength and a challenge to the Mystery Plays, whose length of almost four hours was notorious to schoolchildren in the 1950s and Sixties, obliged to attend with only the sight of fellow-pupils dressed as cherubs or peasants as consolation. This year's revival by the Theatre Royal and Riding Lights flags a little, as the simplicity of Jesus' ministry follows the Old Testament's melodrama, but returns to life repeatedly through startling stage effects and the vigour of hundreds of volunteers in the cast.

Mediaeval York was home to many Danny Boyles, judging by such scenes as the Garden of Eden, all greenery and busy gardeners with straw hats, trugs and sit-up-and-beg bicycles, or the Heavenly host dressed as whirling Dervishes in primary colours. Adam and Eve's innocence is represented by child players rather than skimpy underwear. The potentially Damned create their own cage of sin with spears; rocks clatter to the stage as a murderous crowd skulks away from the woman taken in adultery, challenged by Jesus to find a sinless caster of the first stone.

Paul Burbridge's production makes gender boundaries as unremarkable as ethnic ones have become in the modern north; two queens and a king come to worship and the penitent centurion at the cross is a woman in a military beret, like counterparts in contemporary Afghanistan. This adds to the sense that a whole city has taken part in the return of its proudly local tradition, along with enough cabling to reach the top of York Minster 19 times and more costume-making thread than you would need to cross the Humber bridge.

As twilight deepened, York's natural world joined in. Comfy and equipped with rugs in the three-sided temporary theatre of scaffolding roofed in case of rain, we were joined by pigeons sweeping across the stage to roost and many moths. The city and the world have waited since the Millennium production in York Minster for this revival of the Mysteries. Few will go away disappointed.

The Plays run until August 27. All details here. Photographs by Martin Wainwright.

This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk