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Mystery Plays – York Minster

Writer: Mike Poulton
Directors: Phillip Breen and Becky Hope-Palmer
Musical Director: Richard Shephard
Reviewer: Rich Jevons

After a gap of some 16 years,the Mystery Plays are back in York Minster, reviving a tradition that dates back to the 14th Century. Designed both to educate and inspire, the plays tell the Biblical story from Creation to the Last Judgement. It is a cosmic drama set in Heaven, Earth and Hell that everyone can identify withwhether Christian or otherwise. Although there is an essential message of hope, we are not spared the cruelty, especially in the Passion scenes.

Mike Poulton has reworked his script from the Millennium production to make the Mystery Plays accessible, while also being irrepressibly profound. There is precise and passionate direction by Phillip Breen and Becky Hope-Palmer while magnificent design by Max Jones with Ruth Hall set the scene for a visual masterpiece. This is accompanied by beautiful and plaintive music, directed by Dr Richard Shephard.

The proceedings start with the fall of rebel angels; sinister and dark costumes indicating the evil ones. The Creation is captured with some superb special effects and heavenly costumes, followed by a very moving portrayalof the Fall of Man and Expulsion from Paradise. The depiction of Noah and the Flood isalmost a light relief, with a whole range of fantastic animal costumes and an impressive Ark to house them all in. Throughout, the production retains a Biblical accuracy, combiningit with a more playful and entertaining presentation of events on a massive scale.

God, after testing Noah, once more puts mankind on trial when Abraham is demanded to sacrifice his son Isaak, saved at the last-minute by the Lord’s mercy. We witness Joseph’s disbelief at the Annunciation and a wonderful nativity before a terrifying flight into Egypt and a ghastly massacre of the Innocents. We follow Christ’s life, including his temptation in the wilderness and entry into Jerusalem. As Jesus, Philip McGinley has a masterful gracebut also displays humility and the troubled nature of the Messiah.

From here on, things turn dreadfully dark with the Passion, really brought to life in some excruciating scenes of torture and a mockery of ttrial. The Crucifixion is perhaps the key moment of the show, with huge wooden crosses upon which the three ‘criminals’ are nailed; Christ spotless in sin, but taking upon himself the sins of the world. Just three days after the atrocity, Jesus is resurrected and appears to his disciples, though Thomas for a while remains in disbelief.

Finally, the Ascension is portrayed with wonderful illusions and the Last Judgement comes as a reminder of the wrath of God, as well as his grace and redemption bought by the blood of Christ. Despite running for almost four hours, this is a superb show that continues the centuries-old tradition of endearing the viewers to a sense of the presence of God while also standing up as an unmissable piece of contemporary theatre. The cast cannot befaultedand the technical side of the show goes without a hitch to maintain a sense of complete illusion. A tour-de-force that, along with the newly reopened York Theatre Royal, puts York firmly on the theatrical map. Sensational.

Runs until 30 June 2016 | Image:Anthony Chappel-Ross

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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