The Mystery Plays perhaps do themselves arouse Mystery. "What went ye out into the Parish Church to see?" Well, not so much a reed shaken in the wind as Bill Risebero's splendid and moving translation of the plays. A task involving great skill and erudition, taken from the many sources, including the Wakefield Master and the York Realist. Producing forceful rhythmic verse, never missing its mark, always alive. A labour of love, surely, and one brought to life by a masterly production [by Ben Horslen and Bill himself] and a dedicated cast. On an imposing and perfectly designed set by John Risebero, colour, costuming, music, sound and lighting all played their part in creating a most memorable and moving version of the whole story, from the Creation to the Resurrection.
Back to the beginning - and the beginning of course was God. And Gaynor Bassey, enthroned and royally dressed, gave us a stately and commanding God, who set us on our course. [A course aptly enough for Advent.] With the appearance of angels - and Fallen angels - conflict begins, and the slow growth of light. Adam and Eve - nicely innocent and bewildered - discover the dangers of listening to the wrong advice, and the age-old, but ever cogent, story begins.
"The religion of the Middle Ages", Allardyce Nicholl says, "was serious and mystical, but it allowed of laughter." Yes indeed - how we enjoyed John Hester's somewhat puzzled but anxious-to-learn Noah, the marvellous building and boarding of the Ark by humans and most engaging animals, the nice moment when Mary and Joseph are a shade uncertain of the best way to find Egypt, the devious antics of Mak, the sheep-stealer, and his companion shepherds. The story of Noah has especial force, from the convincing storm to the calm [we are reminded of that moment on the lake when Jesus tilled the storm], and the joy of the company at their release. I danced in the morning when the world was begun - and here the dance of joy was marvellously unconfined.
But throughout the plays the shadow of future darkness gathers strength - after the murder of Abel, his parents cradle his body in a prefiguration of the deposition from the Cross; and the Slaughter of the Innocents, performed with convincing brutality, brings us to the edge of despair. And we are again and again sharply move. As when Mary is revealed, holding her infant child, and when Jesus himself first confronts the Baptist. I noticed many times that absolute stillness in the audience which is the perfect homage.
An enterprise such as this demands total dedication - it can only succeed if all those involved are in some way filled with the same spirit. And this became clear as the play progressed - as for instance in the scene where John the Baptist is baptising the people - each one came with reverence to his hands. Such devils as this gave to the whole production its especial quality. Strength came not only from the principals - splendid though they all were - but from every member of the crowd.
Images stand out - beautifully costumed, vividly coloured, perfectly moulded - the Magi at the crib, Isaiah's prediction of the nativity, the stately presence of angels - and, of course in its awesome darkness, the Crucifixion. Here we had a haunting apparition, high in the church, a centre of darkness and light. Silence here - until the morning comes and darkness fades and the light grows again.
Such an achievement demands of course the dedication of a great number of people, both on stage and in every aspect of production. If I name but a few I can only plead that the quality of all performance was so high. Such figures stay in the memory - David Gardner's vivid Satan, John Willmer's darkly brooding Herod, Angela Gardner and Nina Trebilcock as the younger and older Mary showing gentleness and grief, a troubled and convincing Pilate from Nicholas White. One man in his time plays many parts - and many of these played other roles, from animal to human. Matthew Stevens gave us a Jesus of most moving authority - at the incident of the woman taken in adultery, as he with his finger "wrote on the ground" that absolute stillness held us all.
"What went ye out to see?" A triumphant achievement from all concerned, an experience that left us aware of a dazzling mystery, a sense perhaps that we might
a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells."
Diana Raymond / December 2004
This review will appear in the January 2005 Hampstead Parish Church Magazine.