Coventry Cathedral
Opened 18 July, 2000

The shell of Coventry's old cathedral is a vastly different venue for mystery plays from the enduring majesty of York Minster, and indeed this production takes an entirely dissimilar tack from Gregory Doran's fundamentally faithful recreation of the York cycle. Here, a trio of community playlets whizz through Genesis and Exodus, followed by a 75-minute treatment of the "Life and Death of Jesus Christ" with Polish street theatre company Teatr Biuro Podrozy, whose stilt-walking, fire-belching, horrific Carmen Funebre in the mid-1990s so struck audiences here and in Edinburgh.

The patchiness of the evening is sometimes bewildering. It's usually a keynote of mysteries productions that most if not all of the cast is drawn from local people. In the case of the Old Testament scenes here, however, this does not mean drawing acting performances out of them so much as putting them into costumes and getting them to hit their marks and throw some self-conscious shapes. Worthy motivation rules the day; such theatrical impact as there is results largely from arresting images from Cathy Ryan and Tom Conroy's designs, such as the moment in which the Angel of Death claims Pharaoh's son.

The Podrozys (as they became fondly known in Edinburgh) are, strangely, likewise erratic. Director Pawel Szkotak integrates British actors well into his company, and uses a couple of narrators an angel and a devil, perched high on the north wall and given to comic bickering about the meaning of scriptural phrases to translate the dialogue of the Polish performers. However, the Annunciation and Nativity are almost entirely burlesqued, with a break-dancing devil, Roman legionaries taking a census of the audience, capering shepherds and stilt-walking Magi "riding" an elephant, an ostrich and a giant tortoise.

Only with the trial of Jesus (represented not by an actor but by a life-size, rough-hewn wooden figure in a large cage) does the piece acquire serious punch. As in much Eastern European work, the fascination is principally with Pilate and those who interrogate and condemn Jesus. Here, vox-pop video testimony from ordinary modern-day folk offering their opinions on Jesus is projected behind Pilate's (and earlier Herod's) throne, perched as it is atop a huge globe, and some fifteen feet off the ground literally the Throne of the World. In fact, this darker phase begins with a disturbing Massacre of the Innocents, but the gathering emotional potency is then squandered in a five-minute break to set up the video equipment and sweep clean the ground. Only as Judas plummets to his death from high on the cathedral tower and the Christ figure is hauled up to a passion above the altar-stone and the rude cross which stand at the eastern end of the ruins do we feel, for just a few moments, the impact which we had hoped would be consistently delivered by Szkotak and his company. For too much of the preceding couple of hours, the medium is the message.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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