mon 20/05/2019

The York Mystery Plays, Museum Gardens, York | reviews, news & interviews

The York Mystery Plays, Museum Gardens, York

The York Mystery Plays, Museum Gardens, York

Despite the magnificent setting, this greatest story ever told somehow fails to engage

Museum Gardens: the bespoke auditorium houses a multi-layered set of smoke-billowing trapdoors and spotlit platforms

Is it the greatest story ever told, or the most indulgent nativity ever staged? The return of the York Mystery Plays – this summer’s blue-ribbon theatrical spectacular in the North – begins by beguiling, ends up bemusing, while in between is a sacred story about the eternal battle of good and evil, from Creation to the Last Judgement. The show’s subject matter is as epic as its telling, which involves more than 1700 volunteers (including 500 cast members) and takes place in the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. It is the UK’s largest outdoor theatre production this year.

The timing of this showpiece alone is enough to make its mark on a 700-year-old heritage in York. As birds flutter over a pink, cloudless sunset, a sense of history is not lost on a crisp-crunching, wine-guzzling audience, who take their seats, prepared with blankets for the evening. The Plays were once paraded through the streets of the medieval city, the earliest known performance dating back to 1376. For hundreds of years, they were a method by which Christian messages were transmitted to the public, continuing until the early Reformation. Since the revival of the tradition in 1951, there have been regular stagings of the Mysteries, the most recent falling during the Millennium celebrations.

Directed by Paul Burbridge and Damian Cruden, this latest addition to the cycle – performed at York Museum Gardens for the first time since 1988 – has been adapted by Mike Kenny, the playwright responsible for Theatre Royal York’s Olivier Award-winning The Railway Children. Ferdinand Kingsley (son of Sir Ben) plays God and Jesus (pictured right), opposite Graeme Hawley – former Coronation Street villain John Snape – as the Devil.

The bespoke, 1400-capacity auditorium houses a multi-layered set of smoke-billowing trapdoors and spotlit platforms. Some minor pyrotechnics, a 97-strong choir and an array of giant balloons guide the audience through the opening scenes – including the Garden of Eden, which includes dozens of merry hedge-trimmers on bicycles. Christopher Madin’s cinematic score is perfect acoustic foil for the hyperbole on stage, and, at times, the choreography and directing is bedazzling. The costumes are impressive, too: Mary wears a headscarf and Joseph a flat cap as the biblical narrative sets itself in post-war Yorkshire. Lines such as "Nae Noah, I am not best-pleased” provoke laughter among older members of the audience.)

Yes, visually, it is stunning, majestic, superb. But there comes a time when, perhaps as the midges begin biting your skin, you realise that any sort of intellectual stimulation isn’t going to happen, because this is essentially an extravagant summary of the Old and New Testaments. Towards the end of Act One, families sitting near me were shuffling uncomfortably, teenagers rolling their eyes and tapping on their phones. There’s something formulaic about the way large swathes of cast assemble and disperse en masse at the end of each scene, and a lack of chemistry between some of the performers, whose hundreds of names run four pages long in the programme.

As the evening proceeds through the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and… you know what happens next, the colossal effort that has gone into the York Mystery Plays – the 2500 people involved, the hours of rehearsal time, 1400 metres of cabling required – is somehow let down by the greatest story ever told itself. Even with the Yorkshire-tinged embellishments in Kenny’s script, the dialogue offers little to engage a modern, mostly atheistic audience. For all the project’s seductive grandeur (more shows to be staged here, please) it feels like an opportunity missed.

As birds flutter over a pink, cloudless sunset, a sense of history is not lost on a crisp-crunching, wine-guzzling audience

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Comments

I saw the show and completely agree with what you are saying here!

In which case, you're as short-sighted and moronic as this reviewer.

I loved it! There will always be people who disagree, like the publishers who turned down Harry Potter, or the record company's who have turned down performers who turn out to be stars. As for teenagers rolling their eyes, some of them would do that if Christ actually appeared in front of them, it's those hormones. The young chap sitting next to me fidgeted a little but at the trial and crucifixion he cried, he was so moved. Even then, there will be people for whom it is not their "cup of tea" but the majority of the reviews represent the majority of the audience. Fantastic production,amazing stage setting, brilliantly directed and fabulous costumes. Well done to all those involved. I live 200 miles again and am thinking of going up to see it again, I loved it so much!

In fairness to Mike Kenny, he could hardly be called the playwright; the actual playwright was depicted on-stage by Ferdinand Kingsley, which is in itself a bit of a paradox. Thus Mike Kenny had only 'His' material to work with, plus the earlier re-writing of fourteenth-century scribes aas a nod in the direction of the original aproach to the Corpus Christi performance on peripatetic wagons around the narrow and slow-moving streets of York. A hard act to follow, and most of the visually exciting stuff is earlier rather than later. Even the crucifixion (spoiler alert!) is tinged with Yorkshire humour. The last half hour is message via dialogue, which I feel would be very difficult to make 'engaging with an atheistic audience'. I don't suppose the 'Original Scriptwriter' had atheists in mind...or if He did, 'His' underlying message was to convert them into believers....

This type of show/production is not for everyone. I, myself found it moving, unique in itself. To bring that many people together from all walks of life, the many children, young adults, elders all coming together to put on such a performance is amazing. This is not performed by all professional, mainly by amateurs & non-actors. Everyday people who have other jobs, professions & go to school. I disagree with the comment on the chemistry between the actors. From what i've seen & been involved with behind the scenes these people have come together certainly as 1. They have their own little acting families behind this production, a mother, a brother, a sister, a father and have gained much from oneanother. Was put together in a very good way for all.

"Message via dialogue" is where it didn't quite deliver for me. There were some actors whose dialogue I couldn't discern at all, which made the second half hard going. My colleague visited on a separate occasion and passed the same comment. But, I got the gist, and enjoyed it nonetheless!

I am one of the cast members and having been involved in many amateur and semi-pro productions over the past 16 years I can honestly say that this is the most wonderful production I have ever been involved in! As there are two casts who perform on alternate nights, I have also been able to watch the performance as an audience member. I could not disagree with this review more - both casts have an amazing amount of chemistry, both onstage and off. Take it from someone who has experienced it first hand! As for the criticism of the language, I love the fact that they have remained true to the archic Yorkshire dialect. This production is a much about honouring local tradition as it is anything else. And as for it being or not being "athiest friendly", I believe that the bible is a story that everyone needs to hear, whether or not you believe it to be factual, for one can still embrace the morals and values behind it without believing in God. Whoever you are, whatever your age, whatever walk of life you may come from, and whatever your beliefs may be, this is a production best enjoyed and embraced with an open mind.

On the night we attended last week the packed house roared its approval and applause to the rafters and many stood to salute the fantastic acting and depiction. I wonder if Steve missed the underlying significances of the appalling destruction of the Flood, the still-contemporary depiction of the slaughter of the Innocents. The Nazi-like segregation of men and women before mass executions by machine gun. The handing of a hip-flask to Joseph by the Archangel as he contemplated was a lovely moment. I didn't believe in the personage of a Devil until I went to the Mystery Plays, but now I do. Graeme is the perfect foil for Ferdinand Kinsgley, whose dual portrayal of a God who suffers despite His superme power and his Son who suffers with and on behalf of humanity. The Mystery Plays are of the people and for the people, and this production has held true to this principle. At the bar in the interval, I stood alongside a discussion between an atheist and a clergyman and both approved thoroughly of the performance.

Completely agree. There was much to inspire and to challenge in the production.

I agree with this person who has pointed out that the atheist and the clergyman both approved of the performance. I was totally impressed with everything and the clever way that large numbers of the cast were brought on quickly and disappeared quickly. This meant that the whole performance was very easy to watch, did not drag at all and I certainly did NOT get bored at all. I work with 14 year olds and they have very poor concentration spans nowadays and seldom stay quiet or away from their mobiles for long. In the audience of Wednesday 8th August everybody near me was so engaged that most did not notice that a lady had to be taken out by wheelchair after she collapsed. Any fidgeting by young children was mainly because they were probably too young to understand the story and it was past their bedtime! I for one was totally impressed and if I could go again I would. We even had a spectacular red sky as a natural backdrop for the Shepherds' and audience's delight !!

I loved it! There will always be people who disagree, like the publishers who turned down Harry Potter, or the record company's who have turned down performers who turn out to be stars. As for teenagers rolling their eyes, some of them would do that if Christ actually appeared in front of them, it's those hormones. The young chap sitting next to me fidgeted a little but at the trial and crucifixion he cried, he was so moved. Even then, there will be people for whom it is not their "cup of tea" but the majority of the reviews represent the majority of the audience. Fantastic production,amazing stage setting, brilliantly directed and fabulous costumes. Well done to all those involved. I live 200 miles again and am thinking of going up to see it again, I loved it so much!

What an amazing setting for a very special production which I found very thought-provoking and occasionally almost unbearably moving, in scenes both before and after the interval. The acting was mostly of a very high standard, Ferdinand Kingsley was outstanding.The use of the space and props was exciting, inventive and colourful and the fact that so many people from York were involved made the Mysteries all the more relevant to the present day.

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