YORK MYSTERY PLAYS 2014.
20 July 2014.
12pm/2.45pm Dean’s Park.
12.30pm/3.15pm College Green.
1.15pm/4pm St Samson’s Square.
Runs 2hr/2hr 20min Interval approx 45min between Parts 1 and 2.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 13 July.
City rises inventively to a traditional occasion.
For over half-a-century York has been performing its late medieval Mystery Plays in various forms, with, recently, a four-yearly rolling programme taking several of them round the city’s streets. In the 14th-16th centuries it would have been the whole cycle, Creation to Doomsday, doing that, but the entire place took a holiday then.
This year it’s trundling-time once more, with a first half seeing the world part-created before jumping to the Garden of Eden, leaping to the birth of Christ and shifting, via the Woman taken into Adultery, to his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
Part Two is tragedy and triumph, the Crucifixion, Resurrection, payback time for Hell, before the final sheep and goats sorting of Doomsday. It’s enough to give a sense of the plays’ sweeping perspective. All human life was, indeed, there, and more.
The plays, – like cathedrals – honoured God and the city. Today, as originally, each play is produced by a different group. The results vary in quality and style.
Creation, the medieval Plasterers’ play, is recreated by the Guild of Building, their God standing on a separate podium bearing their name, as they might today sponsor a traffic roundabout. Their cart is like an Advent Calendar, waves and landscapes appearing, fish swimming, a tree producing fruit.
Generally, youth wins out; Canon Lee School and the Freemen bring a fresh young Adam and Eve whose modern inflections sound right for Eden and give reality to the first battle of the sexes.
Among general solidity, several pageants stand out. For visual elaboration there’s St Luke the Evangelist Parish’s huge white scene for the Saddlers’ Harrowing of Hell, where Jesus, between Crucifixion and Resurrection, frees tormented souls.
Several performances incorporate folk-related music, while at the final Judgement, the Mercers’ play presented by Merchant Adventurers and Pocklington School, sinister black-clad Morris dancers line-up with truncheon-like sticks, guarding the gate to heaven and kettling the damned to hell.
Some moments connect directly with today’s world. Medieval Islamophobia crops up as villains swear “by Mahound”. And a moment of journalistic immediacy comes amid Heslington Church’s Massacre of the Innocents (performed originally by Girdlers and Nailers) as rifle-bearing troops batter babies in their mothers’ arms. It could be any modern warzone.
We know the companies who performed the plays, but not the people who wrote, and rewrote, them. Some stand-out for dramatic qualities; in the York Cycle it’s the Crucifixion, performed by the Pinners and linked with the Butchers’ account of The Death of Christ.
The Parish Church of St Chad take on the script by a writer known as The York Realist. As the soldiers nail Christ, screaming with agony while nails secure his hands and feet, and the cross is effortfully hauled to the vertical and balanced on its cart, the reality of the scene takes hold; not just the extraordinary event in Christian history but what was just in a day’s work for skilled workers c 33AD or 14 centuries later. The thoughtless labouring is offset by Longinus, the conscience-stricken centurion who sees the scene very differently from the others.
That scene might be expected to be notable; the other exceptional one is less obvious. York St John University play the Cappers Pageant of The Woman Taken in Adultery and the Raising of Lazarus with a stylistic bravura that might, with these plays and in York’s open air, be strangely amusing.
But the stylised vowels Jesus employs at moments of command achieve the intensity of (also open-air) classical Greek tragedy. And there’s down-to-earth northern realism in Martha and Mary’s annoyance Jesus wasn’t around to save Lazarus before it was – as they thought – too late.
It’s a distinguished part of a mix which shows these medieval dramas’ strength, crafted jointly from belief and experience, created and played in the streets to people who weren’t theatregoers (there were no theatres to go to), minds filled by the variety of civic life and work against a background of belief.
As with theatre, where poetry and imagination co-exist with material effort. Rightly then, civic-robed figures watch or introduce some plays. A Chorus intervenes with a (modern) religious pointer or two. And, the play done, hard human effort draws each pageant-wagon to its next station.
THE CREATION OF THE WORLD TO THE FIFTH DAY (Plasterers) The Guild of Building.
THE FALL OF MAN (Coopers) Canon Lee School and the Guild of Freemen.
THE ANGELS AND SHEPHERDS (Chandlers) The Guild of Scriveners.
MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS (Girdlers and Nailers) Heslington Church.
THE BAPTISM OF CHRIST (Barbers) HIDDen Theatre Company.
THE WOMAN TAKEN IN ADULTERY
and THE RAISING OF LAZARUS (Cappers) York St John University.
THE ENTRY INTO JERUSALEM (Skinners) York Mystery Play Supporters Trust.
CHRIST BEFORE ANNAS AND CAIAPHAS (Bowers and Fletchers) York
THE CRUCIFIXION with
THE DEATH OF CHRIST (Pinners, Butchers) Company of Butchers with
St Chad on the Knavesmire.
THE HARROWING OF HELL (Saddlers) Parish Church of St Luke the Evangelist
THE RESURRECTION (Carpenters) The Company of Merchant Taylors.
THE LAST JUDGEMENT (Mercers) The Company of Merchant Adventurers with