There’s a reason it’s called The Greatest Story Ever Told, and whether your way in was Bible stories at Sunday school, your kids’ nativity play, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ at A-Level (it was for me) or perhaps a chance encounter with Faust, this is a story you know well, religious leanings or not.
What unravels in the three-plus hours of this year’s Mystery Plays is that when it comes to familiarity, staging is everything, and this year’s Plays are staged in the most stunning theatrical setting you could possibly imagine: York Minster.
The Old Testament contains all the cute stuff: the creation of the universe, the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark, all colourfully realised with enormous helium balloon planets, a highly impressive array of animals going in two by two (they’re skilfully made of cane and hessian: see our Behind The Scenes videos below) and the real-time construction of the Ark, shortly before the 150-strong crew from the York community manage the impressive feat of ‘flooding’ the Minster using gargantuan sheets of billowing blue satin. The introduction also depicts the banishing of Lucifer (a compelling Toby Gordon) who sneers his way through his fate, deteriorating each time we see him from the fallen angel with bloodied wings into the charred, damned soul we’ve come to know and not quite love. The ambitious staging is awe-inspiring and imbues the story from the start with exactly what it requires: a sense of scale and wonder.
The first half (two hours that whizz by like one) concludes with the nativity and an adult Jesus (a terrific Philip McGinley) beginning his teachings; Herod’s shocking massacre of the first-born children and the machinations of the tyrannical Roman Empire. Max Jones’ clever, attractive production design, stages and costumes dominate the Minster rather than being dwarfed by it: a heavenly staircase reminds of Heaven in Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death; swathes of red Roman banners are cast onto the walls, interspersed with the stars and planets wheeling overhead, the unblinking passage of time reminding us that these tales may be 2000 years old but have lost none of their relevance and potency.
When we return, the second half focuses on Christ’s rise and fall, the sudden sparseness of the set and enormity of the Minster lending the story more of a gladiatorial feel: we are now the spectators in an epic arena, watching the fate of one man and the betrayal and chaos all around him informing us not just of the past, but of the present and, if we’re not careful, future. You can’t fail to be moved, religion aside: this is a damn great story.
Christ’s eventual trial and crucifixion has been depicted many times but there is something about seeing three men hoisted above a crowd of baying onlookers that still stuns when actually witnessed on a stage. Quite how they did it I’m still working out, but this was a mighty achievement, beautifully arranged and carried out.
It’s a (new) testament to Director Philip Breen and his enormous cast and crew that not only do the 2016 Mystery Plays impress, but frequently astound and amaze: the co-ordination and direction for such an enormous production is virtually flawless, with touches of humour ensuring a welcome lack of too-earnest storytelling. York has long been blessed with a vast community of skilled and passionate creative people, and the Mystery Plays showcases this community spirit at its finest: the term ‘community theatre’ is not to be uttered with eyeballs rolled when faced with a spectacle this well executed, but in fact represents the absolute best example of what a community can achieve when given such wonderful ingredients to work with.
The Mystery Plays have been a part of York’s history for hundreds of years, and that’s exactly the feeling you get as they unfold before you: that if you missed out on this production, you’ve missed out on a part of history. We are, after all, merely passing through history, and The Greatest Story Ever Told is one that will be told as long as people draw breath. Go and see this historical production whether it’s a part of your own story or not: it’s truly a marvellous, wondrous piece of theatre.
The York Mystery Plays runs until 30 June and tickets are available HERE.
Watch our Behind the Scenes videos below to get you in the mood: