Review: York Minster Mystery Plays – with 10 stunning pix

The fall of the rebel angels with Toby Gordon as Lucifer. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross
1 Jun 2016 @ 9.45 pm
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The fall of the rebel angels with Toby Gordon as Lucifer. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross
The fall of the rebel angels with Toby Gordon as Lucifer. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross
Blood-drenched demons. Glowing angels. Life, the universe and everything. The York Mystery Plays are back in York Minster, and they are spectacular.

You are greeted on arrival by Max Jones’ extraordinary set: a massive flight of steps, rising high above the floor, in front of a soaring stone arch. The stage and the arch are linked together by a narrow strip of gauze, which acts as a screen for projected images.

The beauty of this stepped performance area is that it provides a large surface over which director Philip Breen can display his actors, as well as physically providing different heights for scenes between, for example, heaven and hell.

York Minster Mystery Plays

Thu May 26-Thu June 30

£40-£25, matinees from £15

Mystery Plays website

It also ensures that, no matter how large the hat of the person in front of you, you can still see what’s happening on stage.

Modern and medieval

Spectacular… Christ's ministry and entry into Jerusalem in the York Minster Mystery Plays. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross
Spectacular… Christ’s ministry and entry into Jerusalem in the York Minster Mystery Plays. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross
The colour contrast is striking. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross
The colour contrast is striking. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross

The production is a clever mix of modern and medieval. There are cast members in modern day clothing, others in medieval dress, and some in actual costumes.

Although the script sounds authentically original, with its regular rhythms and abundance of alliteration, it has actually been sympathetically adapted for a modern production by Mike Poulton.

Tina MacHugh’s lighting design deserves a review all of its own. It creates grand public spaces, intimate settings, and rainbows and starry skies on the ceiling of the Minster.

The eerie green gloom of the crucifixion scene is pierced by a blazing white light on the figure of Jesus, the same white light which spotlights him during his scenes following the resurrection.

Beautiful, horrifying

Lucifer – the last judgement
Lucifer – the last judgement. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross
Mr and Mrs Noah from the flood scene. Photograph: Duncan Lomax
Mr and Mrs Noah from the flood scene. Photograph: Duncan Lomax

The projections on the gauze hanging behind the stage are superb – beautiful, horrifying, even bringing a lump to the throat. The lack of projection between the crucifixion and the resurrection underlines, subtly but effectively, the horror and isolation of the disciples as they face the world without their saviour.

The music provided by the orchestra, the organ, the choir and the cast is truly beautiful, and the single chord booming from the organ at the moment of Christ’s ascension into heaven thunders in your chest.

Good versus evil in the Minster. Photograph: Duncan Lomax
Good versus evil in the Minster. Photograph: Duncan Lomax
The epic inflatable planets from the creation scene. Photograph: Duncan Lomax
The epic inflatable planets from the creation scene. Photograph: Duncan Lomax

There were problems with the sound on the first night, which seem now to have been at least partially solved. It seemed to me that people were trying to project their voices despite being miked up. Their speeches bounced off the Minster stones and became impossible to understand.

This had been greatly improved by my second visit, although as the night wore on, some cast members seemed to forget, and return to the voices they would use without mikes.

The other sound problem which has definitely now been fixed is the balance – the music no longer drowns out any speeches.

If you have been put off by reports that the sound is terrible, as so many people said as they left on the first night, I do urge you to see the show for yourself. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

Exuberance and joy

Christ is surrounded as he prepares to enter Jerusalem
Christ is surrounded as he prepares to enter Jerusalem. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross

There is so much to see in every scene that I can’t possibly include all my favourites. The planets at the creation. The sheer exuberance and joy of the creatures in Noah’s Ark (I defy you not to fall in love with the dodos). The horror of the massacre of the innocents.

One extraordinary moment when Christ pauses, carrying his cross to Golgotha, and the mob being held back behind him goes into silent slow motion. The Roman soldiers who appear at the top of the stage, lit from below in red and orange, like the demons in the scenes from hell.

The cast is magnificent. The main three characters are, of course, God (Ian Small), Jesus (Philip McGinley) and Lucifer (Toby Gordon). They are the triumvirate who hold the play together.

Ian Small absolutely looks the part of God, and commands the stage effortlessly. Philip McGinley is an ethereal and compelling Jesus, yet not afraid to show his humanity. He and the two thieves crucified with him (Bryan Shewry and João Rei Villar) also deserve special mention for dedication to their craft, appearing in the chilly Minster dressed only in loincloths.

Toby Gordon is a wonderfully devilish Lucifer, really relishing his role. Villains are always so much more fun to play than heroes! There are times, however, when he might consider that menace and threat can often be much more effectively portrayed by a whisper than by a shout.

The crucifixion. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross
The crucifixion. Photograph: Anthony Chappel-Ross

There are so many others I would like to mention. Ruby Barker, a humble and sweet-voiced Mary. Gentle, wondering Adam and Eve (Bob Mallow and Christie Barnes), in their dried-mud body suits and dreadlocks.

Annas and Caiaphas (Roy Mulvihill and Paul French), conniving and determined in their quest to get Jesus out of their hair for good. The woman caught in adultery (Val Punt), whose extraordinary Wilhelm scream made me jump every time she let it loose.

We are so privileged in York to have a huge pool of talented, hard-working unpaid actors. As I commented in my review of In Fog and Falling Snow, the standard of the whole cast here quickly makes you forget that there is only one paid professional on the stage.

I’ve already been lucky enough to see the Plays twice, on the opening night and on the press night. I’m seriously considering a third set of tickets, just so that I can experience the whole glorious thing all over again.

Wear several layers

Having said that, and in the interests of writing an honest review, I do have to warn you of three things.

The show runs for four hours, including an interval.

The seats, or so I am told, are rather hard. The backs curve round so much that they actually start to dig into your sides, rather than supporting you.

One of the few good points of using a wheelchair is that I always have a relatively comfortable seat, so this information does not come from personal experience.

And last, but very much not least, the Minster is cold. Very cold. And the later it gets, the colder it becomes.

However, forewarned is forearmed, and I offer the following suggestions. Wear layers. Several layers. Bring an extra layer with you, because if the weather is cold outside, it will get cold even more quickly inside. The extra wrap I brought along, thinking I wouldn’t use it, proved absolutely essential.

I also brought my own insulated travel mug, full of coffee, which was a wonderful idea, but could bring its own problems. Although wheelchair users can still use the accessible toilet in the Minster, the general public has to use a set of Portaloos in Dean’s Park.

A full house is around 1,000 people, and the interval is only 15 minutes long. You may live to regret the coffee.

A cushion can improve the hardness of the seats, but may not help with the over-curved backs.

And I’m sorry, but I can’t help with the length of the performance.

So far, it has finished a little earlier each night (the dress rehearsal finished at midnight, whereas by Tuesday, the press night, it had shortened to 11.15 pm), but I really can’t see the advertised end time of 10.45 pm being reached unless the cast is issued with roller skates.

All the majesty of the Minster brought into play for the Nativity. Photograph: Duncan Lomax
All the majesty of the Minster brought into play for the Nativity. Photograph: Duncan Lomax
Accessibility

Accessibility for wheelchairs is very good, as it always is in the Minster. There are plenty of stewards around if you need any assistance, or if you need to be taken through the backstage area to the wheelchair accessible loo. They are all unfailingly helpful and friendly, and I really can’t praise them enough.

The only problem we encountered is the very small amount of space between row M and row N, the last two rows of the level seating.

When a wheelchair user is placed at the end of row M, next to their companion, the chair takes up the entire depth of the two rows. This means that the wheelchair user in row N, if they arrive second, cannot sit next to the person who has come with them.

This was annoying, but not a huge problem for us. However, if the person using the wheelchair needs any assistance during the show, it could quickly become a very big problem indeed. The team in charge of the seating plan really should look into this as a matter of urgency.

On the subject of wheelchair accessibility, I was very disappointed not to be able to attend the press night gathering before the show, as it was held in the Deanery, which is entirely inaccessible to wheelchairs.

The Dean assured me that the weather would be lovely, and so the gathering would be held in her garden, which is at least partly accessible.

Sadly, the press night was Tuesday, May 31 – the night when the interval bar in Dean’s Park remained closed as, in the words of the Dean herself, “if you spend any time outside, you will risk hypothermia.”

Thus, I cannot regale you with any interesting tidbits gleaned from the director or cast, as I have on previous occasions. Given the excellent accessibility of the Minster as a whole, I’m sure a better solution could have been found.