www.yorkmysteryplays.org
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My thanks to Liam Ford-Evans

The York Mystery cycle is the largest and most complete in England with some 48/49 plays. In 2012 York celebrated 800 years York’s Civic Charter with a huge backstage and administrative team , 500 cast members and 2 casts – The Potter’s and The Carpenter’s – set in 30s, 40s, and 50s costumes, all under the direction of Paul Burbridge (Riding Lights) and Damian Cruden (Theatre Royal) and producer Liam Ford-Evans. Why the dress mash-up? Paul Burbridge tells how they wanted to acknowledge the 3 main markers of the plays: the late 1300s when they were first performed, the 1560s when they were suppressed, and the 1951 Festival of Britain when York re-started the tradition. Damian Cruden says ‘we’re not setting the plays in the year 1951 but telling them from that period’ of their first modern revival (see www.yorkmysteryplays-2012.com).

The directors wanted to reinvigorate the tradition and make the plays accessible to a modern audience. A new adaptation was written by Mike Kenny and the plays were performed against the backdrop of St Mary’s Abbey and for the first time since 1988 in York Museum Gardens, a 1400-seat covered area within the ancient Abbey walls. Acclaimed UK theatre actor Ferdinand Kingsley played both God and Jesus, and UK TV soap-star Graeme Hawley was the Devil. Both actors have northern roots, a factor that was seen as crucial for a community drama.

The city also organised a huge festival of associated events.

Tthe Missing Mysteries, whereby 300 under-16s from York’s Theatre Royal Youth Theatre promenaded some of the plays not used in the main event all around the city, using all of its churches as medieval stations…a Big City Read, ‘Murder in the Minster’…medieval archaeological digs…musical evenings…the York Stories 2012, a community project to encourage people to share tales of the city of York…and the Modern Mysteries: free in York’s Museum Gardens, these were 6 plays from 6 competition-winning local writers who wrote their own scripts based on 8 medieval plays. York-based Pilot Theatre streamed the mystery plays live over the internet (BBC/Arts Council England funded project), with film on 6 different camera feeds – and 3 audio feeds – to let people choose which play to watch at any one time.

York’s performances are often split between the Mystery Plays and the Wagon Plays. The 1951 revival of the mysteries kept them as static rather than processional performances. But the scriptwriter for that year, Canon Purvis, also scripted a Wagon play from a story not in the main mysteries. These plays were then performed at 3-year intervals on a wagon. The wagons did not move around until 1994 saw a professional performance working 5 different stations. Since then, this has been repeated: in 1998 with 11 plays, and with the York Guilds for the first time since medieval times; then in 2002 with a 10 cycle play at 5 stations; then 2006, 2010; and in 2014 under Deborah Pakkar and with 12 plays, a mini-mystery cycle in itself.

York’s next performance is in 2016, funding permitted.

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