It is not with a little sense of surprise that I found myself yesterday experiencing my 800th online production which is the subject of this review. Back in April 2020 I, probably along with the vast majority of people, was only expecting the virus problem to last a matter of weeks and yet here we are and here I am still reviewing daily after 535 days. I thought I should mark the occasion with something suitably memorable and had been “hanging on” to a short series of audio plays taken from some of the first stirrings of British drama.
The York Mystery Plays is a series of six episodes drawn from the much larger cycle (up to 56 separate plays) regularly performed in the city since medieval times; the first recorded performance was in 1376. The current sextet was recorded in lockdown by York Theatre Royal when the pandemic meant that they could not be performed live as would have been the usual intention.
There are three Old Testament stories starting with first principles and the creation of Adam and Eve. This is followed by the story of The Flood (in two parts) and Moses And Pharoah an account of the exodus from Egypt. The New Testament is represented by the Easter story in the two part Crucifixion and Resurrection. I’m assuming these narratives are well enough known not to have to rehash them here but if you are unfamiliar there’s a pretty comprehensive book about them which is relatively easy to get hold of. The plays are performed by a team of 35, both professionals and community actors from a script adapted by Juliet Forster and Kelvin Goodspeed and directed by the former.
Far from being overly reverential retellings of the familiar, there is an earthiness to the text which is emphasised by the use of the vernacular and the cadences of the Yorkshire accent – even the Creator comes, appropriately, from “God’s own county”. And many of the events are viewed through the lens of the common man.
In Crucifixion, for instance, much time is given to the four soldiers carrying out the sentence while discussing this and that in the way of everyday work colleagues. The significance of what they are doing escapes them completely as the victim , to them, is just another in a long list of similar punishments. In Resurrection, however, the captain seems to have experienced a greater level of understanding. The Flood is equally interesting for its portrayal of the other human inhabitants of the Ark aside from Noah. His wife is portrayed as a forceful sceptic who doesn’t want to abandon the family home to live on a floating zoo and the dialogue almost verges on comedy. Although in some ways it is a terrible piece of stereotyping of the shrewish woman, I don’t suppose that in the 14th century it came across as quite so well worn.
As with any good audio production, and there is no doubt that these plays fall into that category, there are sometimes huge advantages to providing the sound and leaving the imagination to fill in the rest of the gaps. This works particularly well in Moses And Pharoah where the various plagues can be summoned up in sound alone and where the parting of the Red Sea and the subsequent destruction of the Egyptian forces would have been hard to reproduce visually. The nailing to the cross is particularly aurally gruesome. Ed Beesley’s sound design does a very good job in focusing the mind and there are also some appropriate songs.
If you have an interest in the origins of British drama these six short plays, along with the National Theatre’s current streaming of Everyman, will provide a suitable crash course to finding out how it all began. And if you’re interested in how the plays would have looked as well as sounded then take a look here where there are four video recordings of the 2018 cycle with the performances being given from carts on the streets of York itself. I’m guessing, though, that the monk playing an electric guitar is a more recent invention!