Review: York Mystery Plays 2012

The crucifixion: Ferdinand Kingsley as Jesus

One of the biggest theatrical productions of the year, the York Mystery Plays 2012 hark back to the UK’s medieval past, and tell the self-declared “greatest story ever told”.

Performed throughout August in a spectacular outdoor setting just an hour from Sheffield (and conveniently live-streaming this Saturday), the York Mystery Plays 2012 are vibrant, brilliant theatre on a genuinely epic scale.

Performed in a purpose-built temporary theatre, using the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey as their backdrop, there is certainly something spectacular about the York Mystery Plays 2012. For the first time since 1988, the tradition of Mystery Plays – bible stories performed by a citizen cast to inform the people – has been revived in York, one of England’s most famous medieval cities.

The tales told will be familiar to anyone who had a Christian upbringing, or, indeed, anyone who has studied theatre history. But, this production would engage, entertain and dazzle the even most ardent athiest.

With just two professional actors – Ferdinand Kingsley as Jesus and God, and Graeme Hawley as the Devil – the plays continue in the medieval tradition of casting people of the city in all other roles. The scale of this becomes apparent for the first time as Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden, when literally hundreds of supporting actors swarm the stage, creating a blaze of colour and exhilaration. Watching people of such vastly differing ages and levels of experience caught in a single moment is truly a beautiful thing, and the directors, Damian Cruden and Paul Burbidge, use this to great effect throughout the show.

The key moments in the plays are brilliantly highlighted by such a vast cast, but the most glittering  moments are those in which individuals are allowed to shine. The opening of the plays stand as an excellent example: Kingsley and Hawley play their roles to the perfection. Hawley’s Satan stands takes fire from Kingsley, his God, and stares him square in the eyes as he refuses to obey. His banishment to the pits of hell is wonderfully executed with the assistance of the angels. It is notable, then, that Hawley has been nominated for Villain of the Year at the British Soap Awards twice. In this production he reaches the peak of villainy.

The people’s cast, however, also provided remarkable performances: those of Harrison Lee, whose Adam was somehow brutal and vulnerable all at once; Edith Kirkwood as Mary Magdalene; and Paul Osborne as surely the most Yorkshire Noah in history all stand out in my memory, and must be commended.

Technically spectacular and performed with such passion and gusto, the York Mystery Plays 2012 are truly something special. Theatre on a truly cinematic scale, it is ironic that they will probably not be half so special when they live-stream on August 11th: there was just something about the atmosphere which could never be reproduced on screen.




York Museum Gardens, until August 27th.


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