Theatre Review: York Mystery Plays 2012 - Yorkshire Museum Gardens, York ✭✭✭✭✭

York Mystery Plays 2012
Photo by Steven Parker
Yorkshire Museum Gardens, York

Prior to stepping in to the impressive temporary theatrical arena built in front of the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey in York’s Museum Gardens, I had decided to avoid using the word epic in this review of the York Mystery Plays 2012. Having enjoyed over three hours of gripping, emotional and completely mesmerising community theatre it became blindingly obvious that such a challenge would be futile.

Never has a word been more fitting – this is epic in every sense.

Many theatre productions and films have claimed to be epic tales of good versus evil but with God and Jesus on one side, Satan on the other and a cast of hundreds on a huge stage few can make a claim any stronger than this.

The York Mystery Plays have a strong tradition in York but many people feel its true home is in the Museum Gardens, however this is the first time they have been seen here since 1988. This staging is the result of a collaboration of over 1,700 community volunteers and a team of theatre professionals. And you can tell a lot of hard work has gone it to it.

Two professional actors lead the cast – Ferdinand Kingsley takes the roles of both God and Jesus, whilst Graeme Hawley, a former soap villain of the year for his role as John Stape in Coronation Street, takes being a baddie to a whole new level as Satan.

Photo by John Saunders
Kingsley’s performance is divinely multi-faceted. On one hand we see the joys of a young father as he bestows the gift of Eden to his offspring, Adam and Eve, whilst on the other we feel the rage and anger of a God who cannot understand why his creations have strayed off the perfect path he had laid out for them. There are some real tear jerking moments too; you know the crucifixion is coming but that does not diminish its stunning impact.

Hawley’s Satan is more subtle, more sneaky. Yes there are moments of power as the fallen angel squares up against his creator, but more often he is silently in the background, manipulating the weak willed humans to do his dirty work for him. He strikes a menacing figure, surrounded by his sinister followers.

But whilst both Kingsley and Hawley’s performances are magnificent they do not steal all of the limelight from the rest of the cast. From sublime individual performances to ensemble set pieces, this community cast deserve the highest praise possible and that is that you forget that they are a community cast as you get absorbed in to the action.

The months of rehearsals, under the stewardship of joint Artistic Directors Damian Cruden and Paul Burbridge and their team, certainly show in what is a well drilled performance. With the numbers on stage so high, it would be easy for the show to lack pace just because of the logistics of getting everyone on and off but it doesn’t let up – despite the length of the running time. It goes from one set piece to another, intertwining the different biblical stories with skill.

Writer Mike Kenny’s script is an alliteration master class as he has kept close to the feel of the original medieval text whilst making it accessible to modern audiences. The poetic prose presents tongue twisting challenges to the cast but not a single vowel or consonant is missed or mumbled. This is wordsmithery at its most beautiful.

The staging too is on a scale rarely seen with Sean Cavanagh’s immense set allowing cast members to appear from every possible direction (although Angels sadly do not fly in from above) and the stage has a few tricks up its sleeve. From the entrance of the Angels, resplendent in costumes designed by Anna Gooch, this is a visual treat from all the colour rainbows to the more muted tones of life in busy Bethlehem.

As the darkness draws in, Richard G Jones’ lighting is showed off to full effect – as are the Abbey ruins. It really does add an extra magical dimension as the changing light keeps altering the feel and the look of the surroundings.  And then there is music. A heavenly choir and a brass band give the whole piece a cinematic feel with Christopher Madin’s score underpinning the on-stage action (though sometimes it does prove a little of a distraction and makes hearing the actors a little difficult).

It would be great to mention every one of the thousands of people who have been involved in making the York Mystery Plays 2012 a must have ticket as all deserve to take a bow.  Sadly the space in this review does not allow for it. Instead you will have to go in person and give praise yourself. Whether you follow a religion or not, if you are anywhere near York this must be on the top of your to-do list.

I’ll say it again: epic!

5 stars out of 5 ✭✭✭✭✭

Continues until 27th August 2012
Box Office 01904 623568

Review by James Eaglesfield