any moons ago in my second year at University I appeared in a production of the Mystery plays. (I wasn't actually meant to appear
; technically I was the Sound Assistant but the director got as many backstage crew as possible to be "extras" so I spent a lot of time as a homeless person/demon/member of baying crowd. I got the impression she later got bollocked by the Head of Department for beefing up her cast with people who were supposed to be doing other things.) I haven't seen a production since then (1995, I think it would have been) but have wanted to, and although many (too many, if you ask me) theatres are programming around the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, only Shakespeare's Globe seems to be looking at how most people got their religious stories before then. The production went onsale before they'd announced who'd written the adaptation so I already had my tickets; it turned out to be Tony Harrison of Fram
notoriety. Despite this, cjg1
agreed to come with me.
Fortunately this isn't
but it's certainly disappointing. I apologise for comparing to the production I was in but it's hard not to. In the Old Testament stories especially, things are very, very rushed, making it very hard to get a handle on anything before you're already on to the next bit. Not having checked the running time beforehand, we got to the trial of Jesus so quickly I wondered if it was going to play without an interval (there is one though, the total running at nearly three hours.) The choices of what to include and what to leave out are rather odd, some of the more entertaining stories cut short to make way for obscure stuff and lengthy speeches. It's far from a total loss though and many moments in Deborah Bruce's production are inspired, at best I'd describe it as a mixed bag. Going to see it with a "theologian"¹ I was bound to get an interesting perspective in his critique. He was unimpressed at Harrison's cliched view of Christianity and found William Ash's Jesus a bit wet, which I can't really disagree with. He didn't love the production's anachronisms - I didn't mind these (all periods of costume right up to modern dress feature) as the original Mysteries were full of them so all it's doing is recreating how they would have been. What bothered me were the internal anachronisms, like Abraham praying to Jesu, Catholic priests at the crucifiction and Jesus being baptised "in the name of the Son" i.e, er, himself. Again, my overall knowledge of the Mysteries isn't good enough to say if these discrepancies are typical or Harrison's work.
A very unusual choice is to include the story of Mak and his wife in the middle of the nativity, a story neither of us were either familiar with, nor could make head nor tail of. And I was sorry to see the Farts of Satan didn't feature. Especially since I played them in our production. One of the best obscure stories that did
make it is Jesus' trip to Hell on his three days dead, which brings me to Philip Cumbus, once again being the best thing in any production he's in, here by a long shot. (Christopher knew I was a fan of someone in the cast but didn't know who, and was pleased when he picked him as being the one who stood out a mile; he commented on how much more detail there was to all his performances, that you find it hard to look at anyone else when he's on stage.) Cumbus is a nerdy Angel Gabriel (his prefect's badge was one of my favourite things about the production,) a leather-clad Judas, and as the demon Ribald a Welsh Hell's Angel
(I can see you there lady, checking out his arse; you too Bono) with a perfectly executed bit of slapstick that earned a round of applause, and a fun double act with Midsummer
's Matthew Pidgeon as Beelzebub.
I found it quite amusing that enormo-bearded John Stahl has been cast in the Mystery plays and isn't
playing God; that job goes to an underpowered David Hargreaves, who near the end exhaustively recaps the story we've spent the last three hours watching, which was the closest thing we got to Fram
flashbacks. There's a lot of fun stuff in here and it's probably worth it for the show-stealing Cumbus alone but it's an incredibly mixed bag which lacks any real unifying theme to it.The Globe Mysteries
by Tony Harrison is booking until the 1st of October at Shakespeare's Globe.
¹that's not quite what Christopher is but it's complicated, and short of giving you his academic CV he agreed theologian was close enough, if I put it in quote marks