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I am an aspiring writer living and working in Hull. I working on a novel, as well as writing short stories to keep my writing skills fresh. I decided to start a writing blog to connect with other writers. So please, take a look around and leave some comments - I'd love to read some of your writing blogs too. Nari X

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A Modern Mystery...

Before I say a single word, I would like you to watch this trailer for the York Mystery Plays 2012. It says a lot and gives you a glimpse at just how powerful and breathtaking the experience is:

At the weekend, my parents visited us in Hull to celebrate their 29th wedding anniversary. A big congratulations to them both - let's all raise our proverbial glasses. I've learned so much about marriage from my parents and I owe them a lot.
To celebrate, they booked the four of us tickets to see the York Mystery Plays, which are particularly special this year because it is York's 800th Anniversary.
If I'm honest, when I'd first heard of it, I didn't really know what it was. So let me fill you in:

A Rich History

The Mystery Plays are part of a Medieval tradition in York. They began as 50 separate short plays, each telling a story from the Bible. They were performed annually in the open air by local craft guilds, each responsible for a different play. This tradition is recorded for two hundred years until the English Reformation suppressed the plays. 

But the plays live on with the tradition, and 50 plays have been made into one by writer Mike Kenney.

York Mystery Plays 2012, St Mary's Abbey--3
(c) Allan Harris

This year's production was a collaboration of the York Theatre Royal, The Riding Lights Theatre Company and the York Museums Trust. All involved can be very proud of what was achieved. 

The Setting

This year, the plays were brought into the Museum Gardens, and the stage was built in St Mary's Abbey, which provided a wonderful backdrop to the performance. On the main website, you can find a video of the stage being built, which is definitely worth a look. 
The stage was Open Air, which I think is one of the best ways to do theatre, and particulary this play, as it called for a natural setting.  My Drama-Graduate husband informs me that the stage was 'thrust', which means that there were audience on three sides of the stage. There were entrances all around the audience, as well as coming up from beneath the stage - very useful and powerful for the representation of Hell.

The Play
Saturday 4th August, Matinee

Before I get too technical, I want to say that this performance absolutely took my breath away. In spite of the weather, the cast carried the story with such passion and such skill. There was not a single moment, not even when the heavens opened and the director shuffled the cast backstage to procure some very trendy waterproof ponchos, when I was the least bit disappointed, disconnected or any less than 100% involved in the story being told. I could not stop thinking about it. There were so many theological points raised, simply by who was where at a certain moment, even by the simplest action of placing a hand on a shoulder. 

York Mystery Plays 2012 - Dress Rehearsal 01.08.2012  -10
(c) Allan Harris
As we were all fidgeting and getting comfortable, commenting on how sunny this side of the stage was and that we weren't sure if our faces could take 3 hours of direct and unrelenting sun, a man in a tan trenchcoat casually walked onto the stage and began writing excitedly in chalk. 
My first thought was a scientist on the verge of cracking a theory, a mathemetician working out the missing calculations, or an artist planning out some great design. 

It was, of course, a timeless God with an epic idea, working it out with as much excitement as all of the above. This portrayal of God made me smile right from the first second because it was just so fitting. 
Ferdinand Kingsley played the role of God and later, Jesus, and in that, they had cast incredibly well. He had the air of excitement, interest, love and humour, but also of deep hurt and anger, caused first by the rebellion of Satan and the angels, then by humanity, whom he had also created. 
He had the audience with him every step, and during the heavy rain, he had this smile on his face which made us all smile with him and laugh freely at the liberation in the image of him stood in the rain speaking of new life and being washed clean through his resurrection.

York Mystery Plays 2012 - Dress Rehearsal 01.08.2012  -16
(c) Allan Harris
Satan, also, was cast fantastically well. He was played by Graeme Hawley, most famously known for his role as John Stape in Coronation Street. He played the opportunist, silently watching and waiting. In almost every scene, he was lurking, just watching, or whispering in somebody's ear. 

There was an eerie presence to the character, and he would show up in places you weren't looking or expecting to find him. At the Fall of Man, he did not appear as a snake, or some other beastly representation of evil, but as a friendly looking gardener. 

He appeared constantly, handing out stones to the crowds before Jesus tells them it is not for them to judge, whispering into the ear of Herod's wife, placing a hand on the shoulder of Judas. All these subtle things carried huge theological weight, and there are so many debates I could get into. 
Whatever was the main focus of the play at any given point, I was always scouting for Satan, just to see what he was doing.

York Mystery Plays 2012 - Technical rehearsal -4
(c) Allan Harris

The angels gave an interesting modern take, not clad in white lace and silk with halos and wings, but wearing very brightly coloured outfits with wide skirts that span as they danced. They also formed the rainbow after the flood as Noah and his family sailed to safety. 

As I mentioned before, the weather was it's own character in this play as well. Open Air Theatre always runs the risk of rain, snow or thunderstorms, but I felt that the cast rode with the weather so beautifully. In the first half, our side of the audience got sunburnt, and then in the second half, a cloud rescued us. The cloud grew darker and darker with the story, and was a heavy, ominous grey as Jesus died on the cross. During the Harrowing of Hell, the heavens opened and it absolutely bucketed down. It was so appropriate; Jesus stood tall, arms outstretched saying 'Let my people go!' with the rain hammering down poignantly. I had shivers running down my spine when all the cages of hell fell to the floor and Satan retreated into the depths of Hell from the power of Jesus' command. 
The cast soldiered on through the rain, not even blinking or skipping a beat in their lines, but it was at the point where nobody could hear or see, so the director had to apologise and shuffle everyone off to dry off. The performance commenced after 5 minutes, by which time the rain had stopped. And not for a second was anything about the play ruined, if anything, the rain made it more powerful. 

The Writing

The language used in the script was very archaic, and worked almost in Rhyming couplets. In this sense, the whole thing felt like an epic poem, with cast and characters to get behind the words and bring them to life. It had an almost Shakespearean feel to it, which was appropriate given the history and tradition of the plays. 
I liked that Mike Kenny had stuck with this type of language, keeping the plays closer to the original texts. The delivery of the cast was so good that the writing sounded beautiful and natural, and wove the story together like a powerful thread. 

 I Recommend.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this play. At first, I was not sure what to expect, and I was so impressed by the experience I was given. The York Mystery Plays are running until the27th August 2012 - pay a visit to the Website and book your tickets now. You will love it.

I would like to say a big thank you to Allan Harris for letting me use his spectacular photos in this post. You can find more of his work at All images posted here belong to Allan Harris and are used with permission from him. 


  1. I can't believe I've never heard of this! It sounds amazing. I am so interested in modern tellings of the bible - especially seeing how people portray God and Satan (the two most mis-portrayed characters in history!). This sounds awesome. Thanks, for the heads-up. I'm excited about it just from reading your blog post!

  2. Trust me, Chloe, it was absolutely epic. As I was writing this post, I did think of you. Please go and see it if you are anywhere near (can't remember where you live!). Anything I say can't do justice to this masterpiece. I actually miss it. I just don't remember the last time I was this moved by a play.
    Glad I have ifected you with my excitement!
    Nari X

    1. Definitely not anywhere near - deepest darkest Devon! But will bear it in mind when planning future holidays!

  3. I have been lucky to see this production twice and would happily go again budget permitting - I am keeping a close eye on the last night availability to make sure I don't miss out!

    As you say the weather adds so much - there was a glorious sunset during the Nativity which seemed so appropriate. I loved Noah - the Shepherds- the Angels-the stunning choir and of course Jesus and the devil. Just thinking about it again I am just going to order that ticket:)

  4. Hi Nari, that is a brilliant review. I am part of the community cast, I play one of Noah's daughters in law. It's so great to hear that you thought we did well, such a huge amount of work went into the plays!
    I am glad your weren't put off by our little interval!
    Thanks for coming and supporting us!
    L x

  5. As a Member of the Front of House team I have not actually seen the production yet but tonight all this will change. Have experience it about 6 times now, even from outside you feel the sheet energy of the production and see the focus in the eyes of the entire cast as they scurry by during scene changes.
    But tonight I am going as a member of the audience, and I am so excited that I can hardly wait !
    I am so proud to be a member of this magnificent creation - thank you for your lovely review.

  6. A superb review Nari - thank you! I was at that Saturday matinee too and was so moved and exhilarated by it all that I went again on Wednesday evening, and picked up on little things that I hadn't noticed the first time round - especially the almost omnipresence of Satan, often so understated but full of meaning. The Mystery Plays have been a real highlight of my year.

  7. Thanks for the insight into something I've heard of but hadn't a clue what it was about,despite having had short holidays in York. I've been to Oberammergau in Bavaria, where they hold the Passion Play every 10 years. Unfortunately I wasn't there for the play, although my sister has seen the play which I would imagine is similar to what you have seen. I watched the video clip, and it looks really spectacular.

  8. @Annonymous poster - I don't blame you for going again, I definitely would if i could. In that sense we were so lucky that my generous parents treated us.
    @ Lawen - Thank you for reading - it really was unforgettable, and I could tell just how much work had gone into the production. Every single one of you has made something to be really proud of.
    @second annonymous poster - it must be wonderful to be a part of it, but still frustrating that you haven't had the full effect til now. I hop you enjoy/enjoyed the performance - you can definitely feel proud to be a part of it! Thanks for reading :)
    @Lesley - I'm a tiny bit jealous that you went again on Wednesday!I totally agree - absolute highlight of the year (so far... my sister in law is getting married in December so that's gonna be pretty big too :P )
    @John - Glad to have enlightened you. I would say it was very similar to Oberammergau Passion play - my Mum and her mum went a few years ago and were blown away by it. Wintershall do Nativities and Passion plays also, which i have seen with my family many times - these also are worth a visit. You follow the story round the grounds, taking part in aspects such as the feeding of the five thousand.
    Still, I wasn;t quite ready for this spetacular performace :)

    Thanks for all your lovley comments

    Nari X