(Thanks to Jill Taylor and Ros Hallifax for talking to me.)
Lichfield’s text is based on a few surviving pieces from its original medieval plays plus some from elsewhere which Robert Leach transformed into a ‘new’ play in 1994.
In 2015 they will again act out all 27 plays twice over, both in and out of the Cathedral; selections will also perform on a mobile stage all over the district with a cast of some 600 at last count.
Lichfield performs in 3-year cycles. The next is in 2015.
Three years in the planning: why would anyone want to do the ‘shedload of work’ that is the Lichfield Mysteries? Jill Taylor (Production Manager) and Ros Hallifax (Chair of Lichfield Mysteries, 2012) explain why here:
I am sitting in the refectory opposite Lichfield Cathedral talking to the two women who make it all happen. Ros Hallifax has been involved in the last three cycles. She once sang in a small choir, one of the Angels, then sang for Doomsday. The last time the Mysteries were performed she even had her acting debut. That time too, because her cousin was visiting, she sat through the entire day’s plays, and it was this, ‘seeing the spectacle in its entirety,’ that made her forget the plans to spend her retirement doing nothing, and volunteer for the Chair. The logo for the Lichfield Mysteries is ‘be part of something amazing’ and, says Ros, it is; it’s ‘staggering’ to see it ‘enhancing everyone’s lives…to have that kind of thing here in a setting like the cathedral…Where else will you get that kind of opportunity?’
Jill’s story is remarkably similar. She, too, sings – with the Birmingham Cathedral Choir. In 1994 she was one of the Cherubs choir, and, she says, had no idea what was going on: ‘because it had never happened before it was too big a thing to comprehend.’ Jill tells how on that glorious summer Bank Holiday, she sat on Stowe Fields and turned to see that the grass was full of people. It was, she concludes, ‘an awesome experience.’
The Lichfield Mysteries’ revival came in the early 1990s when a local theatre group performed one of the plays author Robert Leach wrote from the few fragments he found. Robert took these extracts, dated from 1420, and combined them with other mystery play cycles, editing and rewriting them to make them accessible to a modern audience. Those early attempts to perform snowballed. By 1994, Robert Leach had 24 plays ready for their first ever modern-day outing. In 2006, he added another two plays and rewrote versions of The Prophets and The Prologue to give Lichfield an available collection of 26 plays. The plays are always performed in the ‘original’ medieval English, or some form of it, and move as did the medieval plays around various stations; in Lichfield that’s usually the Market Square, Stowe Fields, and the Cathedral. Each play is performed up to six times; Lichfield offers the full cycle on Day One then repeats it the following day. Doomsday is the only play acted out exclusively in the Cathedral, using the front of the West Door as its interior backdrop.
In 2009 Lichfield experimented by allowing some plays in modern English. The feedback was overwhelmingly in favour of the medieval scripts. All subsequent performances have used a form of Robert Leach’s plays. I ask why they think audiences voted in favour of the ‘medieval’ versions. Ros tells me she believes that’s because it’s what people expect to hear; ‘this is the language,’ she says, ’and this is the poetry of it.’ Jill agrees. She suggest it’s simply too disconcerting to switch between modern and medieval English. Ros adds too that Robert always said the scripts didn’t belong to him, but to the citizens of Lichfield – and that’s why it was crucial to go with the feedback.
Most of the modern-day Mystery cycles retain the spirit of the ‘originals’: these plays belong to the people, are community events designed to bring the town together. Lichfield, in 2012, was no exception. Groups were asked to keep to the medieval-modern scripts but to interpret as they wished. They were encouraged to incorporate music, dance and drama, while a local writer, Carolyn Scott-Jeffs, was commissioned to write a linking script. This involved three local ‘characters’ speaking in modern English to introduce various plays and offer some continuity between the performances. Almost a thousand people were involved in some way in the 2012 cycle. The cast are all amateurs. And alongside the plays, there was also a fabulous folk group, Wildfire Folk, a large Youth Ensemble; poets and singers; Shepherds Crook Puppet Theatre, prisoners’ work from HMP and YOI Swinfen Hall; and various arts and crafts events.
But perhaps the most important aspect of this community project is its open access policy. There are no auditions. Anyone can play anyone they wish to play; as long as it fits the schedule, they can perform as many times as they wish. Another important principle is that each community group has their own vision for the play they choose, rather in the manner of medieval ‘performing’ guilds. And, as Ros and Jill tell me repeatedly, above all there is no entrance charge. People can watch these plays for free, something no other UK city allows.
Of course this has implications. As at Lincoln, the Cathedral has a more vested interest in raising money and is keener to pursue a more economically viable path. Ros and Jill accept that the costs spiral each time a cycle comes around. Professional expertise and technology greatly enhance the experience – the auditory qualities of some outdoor performances suffer adversely – but budget constrains both. More Arts funding would be a huge help, as would greater sponsorship from local businesses, and they are already fund-raising for the next cycle. But, they tell me, the mystery cycles are about community. Each visitor increases footfall into the town and, later, to the cathedral perhaps, which even some locals will never have visited. Ros says of the mysteries ‘it’s the community aspect, allowing anyone to get up and do it…just local people having a go.’ Jill likes the repeated stories, and Ros agrees: ‘they stand the test of time’ even if you do them differently each time you perform them. Whether acting, directing, working backstage, it doesn’t matter. Jill says ‘the other lovely thing is when people pop up elsewhere and you know they’ve really only got into that thing coz of the mysteries and then they appear doing something else.’
Jill tells me a story that for me sums up the whole experience of these amazing events. Once she says, we rehearsed The Crucifixion with Jesus in a coffin borrowed from the local undertaker. And on another occasion Jesus was accidentally hit as the players pulled and tugged at his body to stretch him into shape ready to nail him on the Cross; she says she hadn’t laughed so much in years, that the whole cast ‘was doubled up with laughter.’
And when I came to see the cycle performed here in 2012 that was what I took with me too: that sense of ordinary people enthusiastically having a go and sharing memories. My personal favourites? Performances by South Staffordshire College, The Last Supper and Betrayal set as the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party; the fun of The Wedding at Cana (Theatre de la Colline, Sainte Foy Les Lyon); the fabulous Flight Into Egypt (Barebones); and my highlight, the physicality of the hilarious song-and-dance that was the Ironbridge Players’ The Shepherds.