Re:View – The Globe Mysteries
It’s been said that everyone should see The Mysteries once in their life, so when my friend Suzi Feay at the FT had a spare ticket for the new production at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre last night, it seemed a perfect opportunity.
Based on a set of medieval dramas created by guildsmen in York, Wakefield, Chester and Coventry, the Mysteries introduced aspects of medieval life into theatrical representations of the Bible.
With community guilds presenting relevant scenes on lavishly decorated wagons or platforms, these collections of plays were developed from the 10th Century up until just before Shakespeareâ€™s own plays were performed. The poet and playwright Tony Harrison first tackled The Mysteries for the National Theatre in 1977, and has now adapted his iconic version to create The Globe Mysteries – featuring 60 characters played by a cast of 14, and telling a range of Biblical stories from The Creation to Doomsday.
The key to making the stories engaging is their earthy connection with working people, and it’s here that this version excels. We see much of the action from the point of view of ordinary Yorkshire mortals, so the men who come to crucify Christ are from the council, clearing concerned about Health & Safety, and Lucifer is a wide-boy on the make. Props are artisans’ tools, stepladders and crates.
The approach could probably have been pushed further to make the groundlings more part of the crowds at Golgotha and Gethsemane – the audience was aching for chances to respond throughout. Much of this is very funny, with an earthy and very human Eve, an incredulous Noah, witnesses to the resurrection both pompous and terrified, and God as a weary Yorkshire granddad in a cardigan.
The poetry best shines in moving soliloquys from Mary at her son’s parting and a disillusioned God, although in places the dense alliterative text gets a little hard on the ear. A lengthy play that speeds by, there’s some punchy language and even a jig of human folly at the end, led by a bemused God.