THE YORK MYSTERIES
in the Museum Gardens
These Benedictine arches were old before the Mystery Plays saw the light of day. Like them, they've seen glory, decay, neglect and revival. They made the perfect backdrop to Mike Kenny's new version, the first to be performed in these gardens since 1988. On Press Night, only the second performance unaffected by summer rain, the trees and the clouds were tinged with pink for the Nativity, the ruins starkly lit against black for the later, darker scenes.
Kenny looks back to the first modern production in 1951 – when the four dozen individual scenes were first welded into a whole – and gives his world a cosy, retro look, inspired, he says, by Stanley Spencer. Lots of ancient bicylces, and topiary animals for creation, including a strawberry spider and, of course, a coiled serpent for Lucifer to hide behind. His Adam and Eve, in their innocence, are played by a young boy and girl, replaced when they taste the fruit by ashamed adults.
Strife and death run through the scenes. The Flood, with the traditional comedy Mrs Noah, is done with brollies, but there are drowned children when the waters recede.
The staging [set design by Sean Cavanagh] allows multiple traps, used cleverly as the doors in a busy Bethlehem, more sinister for the Massacre of the Innocents. The drab utility costumes of the people are nicely contrasted with the rainbow colours of the angels.
The huge crowds – superbly directed by Damien Cruden and Paul Burbridge - are effective in scenes like Casting the First Stone and the Harrowing of Hell, where the souls stream up to heaven like a Doom painting – no crowds, alas, in the Sheep and Goats Judgement, though. And there was little black humour in the Crucifixion scene – it's there in the text [the same vein that Tony Harrison mined for his Mysteries], but perhaps didn't fit with the violent, militaristic mood of this production.
Many excellent performances in parts large and small: Ewan Croft's Young Adam [Anna Robinson his Young Eve], Anthony Ravenhall's Joseph, Maurice Crichton's Pilate, Roger Wood's Peter and Mandy Newby's Mother Noah.
Only two professionals on stage – Ferdinand Kingsley as a young, athletic God [later taking human shape as Jesus] and Graeme Hawley's smooth, oily Devil [and several of his works].
There were choirs and a brass band, too, adding to the challenge of stage-managing "the biggest outdoor production in the UK this year" [not counting Danny Boyle's Olympic opener, I guess]. The effect was stunning, alternating the epic and the intimate, and remaining remarkably true to the originals, not only in the language, but in the spirit of place, a dramatic declaration of faith for, and by, the people of York.