Lincoln Mysteries
See this site for its excellent archive

My thanks to Geoff Readman (Chair of the Lincoln Mystery Plays Trust and Director of the plays, 2008) for talking to me about these plays.

Lincoln mysteries have been performing since 1969, though fragments of its plays date back to the 10th century. The Theatre Royal in Lincoln assembled a cast of youngsters on that occasion. Most think the plays really started their come-back in 1978 when Keith Ramsay translated the medieval N-Town cycle; this has been associated with Lincoln ever since. Most plays are named after their place of origin – York, Chester and so on. But N-town means ‘nomen’ suggesting this was a touring play long before it became attached to a particular place, in this case to Lincoln. The cycle usually plays outdoors starting at the Bishop’s Palace and taking some two and a half hours in total run-through.

The Lincoln Mystery plays total 42 sequences in all, though it’s not often that all of them are performed together. The last date on the manuscript is 1465, undoubtedly in the hand of the last writer to work on the script.

In 2011, a huge Gala fundraising night, organised by Aggi Gunstone and Geoff Readman, celebrated the diverse ways in which the N-town plays might be interpreted, and welcomed back the original cast of the 1969 revival which included a young Alison Steadman as Mary.

In 2012, under the Artistic direction of John Botwell (Converse Theatre), Lincoln offered a festival as part of the continuing tradition of the Lincoln Mystery plays.

Geoff Readman in conversation with Gail Ashton:

Here, in 2012, various community and performing arts groups formed ensembles or ‘guilds’ to explore the plays through drama, music, movement, and visual arts. Some of these pieces became part of the main performances in and around the cathedral cloisters, while others played out across the city. This means that for the first time it was an entirely community-based event, buying in only some technical expertise and not using professional actors as it occasionally did in the past. Likewise, everyone associated with the Mysteries is a volunteer. The Board of the plays stresses that it’s ‘a theatre company, not a religious group,’ and that its medievalism is ‘open and inclusive.’ Geoff Readman tells me that the Board’s aim is to ensure these plays belong to the city of Lincoln, and, ideally, be composed of representatives and residents of Lincoln, rather than outside actors or theatrical professionals. But he accepts this is ‘a delicate balance’ with the Church, for example, looking for a more serious or didactic spiritual message. Readman insist , rightly in my view, that the plays were never really like this at all but were ‘rowdy…contentious…addressing social, real issues’ and allowing people to speak about their life and concerns. He thinks it’s crucial that we recall this medieval impetus and try to reclaim it if we can. He says he is ‘passionate about the crafts and guilds’ and that the plays ‘are of the people and the town…not about promoting Christianity,’ something I hear repeated in conversations with those promoting medieval mystery plays at Lichfield and York.

Geoff Readman highlights a continuing tension in all modern performances of these plays: the clash between an academic-cum-theological perspective and a more secular, inclusive one. He mentions the academic prestige accorded to a Wakefield cycle – which Tony Harrison used for his modern The Mysteries – yet which is hardly ever performed and has no real afterlife. Those plays which do have a vigorous contemporary afterlife are constrained by lack of money and instead are always ‘beholden to goodwill’, always ‘milking those with leisure time and alternative income – the retired, the not-employed.’ So, too, the danger of keeping the performances exclusively for local people is a lack of professional expertise in some areas. He says ‘there is never enough money and not enough to pay folk.’ He tells how in 2012 the Director wanted to stage satellite performances all over the city to make it more authentically ‘medieval’ but had to abandon plans once he realised the implications for organisation and the budget. One answer to this dilemma, Geoff tells me, is to access lottery and/or heritage funding; this is the only way the plays will survive in the end and satisfy his longing to ‘work with the community over an extended period of time and get the plays back into the town and the cathedral.’ I hope he gets his wish.

Lincoln performs its plays every 4 years or so. The next performance is in 2016.