A percussive rumble reverberates through York Minster. A few of the 1000-strong audience assume that it heralds the national anthem (we are, after all, in the presence of the Duke of York) and get hesitantly to their feet; but no, it's just the arrival of God to begin the York Millennium Mystery Plays.
Since their modern revival in 1951, the York Mysteries have been staged in the traditional manner: on wagons processing through the city. The move inside the Gothic majesty of the Minster's nave requires a spectacle to match the architecture; directors Gregory Doran and David Hunt, designer Robert Jones, composer Richard Shepherd and lighting designer Michael Gunning fulfil their brief. Gunning, in particular, works wonders with the space – not only using the Minster's vaulting to create a magnificent rainbow at the end of Noah and the Flood and fashioning an unobtrusive contrast between the light of heaven and the darkness three stage levels below for The Last Judgement, but even working with the Almighty and the calendar: obviously, the Minster's great windows cannot be blacked out, so the presentation is timed and the lighting designed so that the gathering gloom outside only encroaches on the interior at The Crucifixion.
Doran's ability to be visually exuberant – which I worried overbalanced the narrative in his RSC production of Oroonoko last year – is here given full and necessary rein. The mediaeval guilds' stagings of the Mysteries were always opulent, and here the menagerie entering the Ark, the crowds of Jerusalem and the repeatedly appearing angels are no less so. Mike Poulton has rendered the forty-odd plays down to barely three and a half hours, maintaining both mediaeval language and verse forms which mingle rhyme and alliteration without sacrificing comprehensibility. Low characters are occasionally given robustly low speech (the fall of Lucifer is signalled when he declares God's sole supremacy to be "Bollocks!"), but this, too, is no more than faithful to the vernacular spirit of such figures in the original.
Most wonderfully, the sense of community of the plays is preserved – not just in the staging (Ray Stevenson's Jesus is the only professionally engaged actor in the vast company), but in the sense that the events are of us and among us, and the message of the plays is likewise immediate. When the infant Jesus is presented in the Temple, he is welcomed "here, to this Minster", and the city scenes implicitly mingle Jerusalem with York (although perhaps not to the extent of intentionally casting a Pilate with an unsettling resemblance, at least from twenty rows back, to William Hague).
Vast spectacles such as this all too often oversell their specialness and end up disillusioning spectators. This is not the case with these York Mysteries. The 28,000 who will see the next month of performances (the entire run is already sold out) are in no danger of being underwhelmed by their splendour and continuing potency.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
Return to index of reviews for the year 2000
Return to master reviews index
Return to main theatre page
Return to Shutters homepage