Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Missing Mysteries: Past meets Present

 ***These views do not represent York Youth Theatre or York Theatre Royal ***

This year is something called ‘York 800’.  It’s an umbrella for various celebrations of York’s history.  The reason for 800 years is vague and merely an excuse for having a load of events and festivals (York becoming a self-governing city, selling the rights to raise taxes to fight foreign wars 800 years ago).  I also take issue with York celebrating the history of chocolate production in our city with the opening of a Chocolate Museum.  It was still quite a big industry and main employer until recently, when my Dad lost his job at first Nestle, then Terrys.  Gone are the days when my Grandpa got a job at 16 and kept it until retirement in his 50s to provide for his family.  Yet these companies all took their production overseas and no effort was made to keep them to remain.  And now suddenly museums tell us what a glorious history and reputation York has for chocolate production!  York needs a present and a future, not just a past.  We need to be more than a museum city.

Anyway, onto theatre…

So York Theatre Royal has also been charged with celebrating the past, in the form of the tradition Mystery Plays.  If you don’t know, the Mystery Plays are Bible stories re-told by the working people of the area.  Traditionally performed from a medieval origin, the 2012 production has already received complaints for updating the Mystery Plays to the 1950s!  (“I was shocked and saddened to read that the actors in the Mystery Plays will wear 1950s clothes”- Margaret Birch). I’m sure Mike Kenny will create an interesting adaptation of these religious concepts.

As part of this larger scheme, York Youth Theatre was commissioned to perform shows in various churches across York (we have a lot of old churches).  These were the Missing Mysteries, so-called because they were the stories Mike Kenny chose not to adapt.  I work with 11-13s, a funny age group.  They have the energy and wildness of 8-10s, but the intelligence, talkativeness and restlessness of 14-16s.  Our Group (G-force) are full of madness and are great fun to work with.  To accommodate this, me and practitioner Kate Plumb wrote a script based on their zany ideas, with loads of help from Emily our volunteer.  Talking horses, talking pillars of cloud, Dad’s Army-inspired Egyptian soldiers and a Mrs Pharaoh who could have been lifted from Coronation Street.  The show was peppered with my brand of silly political humour (“we’ve spent most of the country’s gold on the banks” “the banks?” “yes the banks of the river Nile”).

However I think many of us writing scripts for our youth theatres worried about reverence and respect towards the churches which allowed us to use their space.  My initial vicar, for example, seemed a bit gormless until I realised it might upset the real vicar.  Also, all of the initial stories and concepts we were adapting involved murder, war and slavery.  So how to get the young people keen and keep the seriousness of the occasion, event and subjects?

Our show was The Crossing of the Red Sea, odd because it’s the 2nd half of a story.  We all know how it goes, the Israelites are freed by Pharaoh, expect he changes his mind and chases after them.  They manage to escape thanks to Moses raising his staff and God allowing them to flee through the sea, which then comes crashing down on the fleeing Egyptians.  Faith in leaders was a recurring theme, the Monty Python-esque Pharaoh manipulated by slimy advisors and lazy wife, while the Israelites place faith in Moses and God.  The story is rife with leaders making terrible decisions, acting for the good of their country, subjecting another people to slavery.  One young actor pointed out the war memorial against one wall of the Church, so I wrote the following little poem based on Charge of the Light Brigade for a chorus at the end:

In the heart of the desert, under the fire sky

I saw refugees come shambling by

The young helped the old, the strong the weak

Clawing for their freedom piece by piece

In the heart of the desert, under the fire sky

They reached the sea with waves rolling high

And they despaired, had not been saved

Trapped between a spear and a roaring wave.

In the heart of the desert, under the fire sky

I saw a man nature defy

For they would rather die on their feet

Than live as slaves in dirt on their knees.

In the heart of the desert, under the fire sky

I saw the waves part and subside

And under this miracle they fled

Fearing the sand would be stained blood red

In the heart of the desert, under the fire sky

I saw an army come thundering by

Given the order to pursue in the sea

Instead of giving the order to flee.

In the heart of the desert, under the fire sky

I saw the soldiers charge on...and die.

Other shows also tried to balance this humour and reverence.  Jenna Drury’s Flight Into Egypt had great fun Window-makers and stone-masons introduce the play and the history of the church, St. Martin’s, before the story of Mary and Joseph evolved from a tradition Bible story into a parable for German Fascism in the 1930s, Herod an allegory for a paranoid and genocidal Hitler.  As the story transmuted into the Second World War, the story became up-to-date with the history of the church itself being explored and bringing the story back round to the actual building itself.

Paul Birch’s Mortification of Christ was a challenge for his 14-16s, a look into the hardcore themes of suffering, pain, punishment, false justice, death and rebirth, but they handled it marvellous, throwing themselves into harrowing scenes of crucifixion.  Apparently on the Wednesday performances, there was a sudden burst of hail which disappeared once the actor playing Jesus began his speech…

Paula Clark’s Coronation of the Virgin had a mixture of humour and drama.  To begin with, the audience are treated to Mary-obsessed fangirls.  The most famous woman in all history becoming an allegory for celebrity culture in 2012.  But later the woman who lost their children because of Herod’s paranoia over Mary’s son disappear their individual stories to a roaming audience.  The actors did exceptionally well only in their simple Mysteries t-shirt under pelting heavy rain.  But, just as the end, it seemed like nature was on our side as the rain became just a trickle, and the sunshine came out.
I think this moment summarised the Missing Mysteries.  Sometimes sunny and celebratory, sometimes rain and hail reflect the darkness within these tales.  But all handled very well by the Youth Theatres to represent each group.  These are stories, and to hold them in too high a reverence means they lose their relevance.  Celebrity, war, slavery, murder, genocide, justice, peace and family are all essential issues within the 21st century and the Youth Theatre used these classic stories as a springboard to leap into the fray. 

Also of note were Jessica Fisher’s and Juliet Forster’s, which I couldn’t see due to doing the get-in for our show, but sounded ace.

I have high hopes and have great respect for the current Mystery plays taking place this August in the Museum Gardens to represent a fresh and intelligent adaptation on these important stories and not simply regurgitate predictable medieval staples.  They had their first rehearsal on Sunday and today it kicks off. 

These are exciting times to celebrate what York has NOW and what York is producing TODAY, and not what York is known for, famous for, predictable for.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

A wise man learns more from his enemies than a fool from his friends

The following are some insights into comics’ super-heroes and protagonists through their evil villains and counterparts.  Sometimes the best way to understand a character is to look into their mirrors.  What foes and villains confound the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and The Avengers?  How do they resemble their opponents?  And what lessons can we ‘real’ people learn?

Fantastic Four

The villains of the FF are all geniuses who exclusively work alone and use their intelligence for evil.  Mole Man, The Mad Thinker, Diablo, Annihilus, Red Ghost, Psycho-Man and of course Doctor Doom.  These villains shun the use of families or friends, and their minions are either robots, apes, dull-witted super-villains or Moloid drones but never a united team.  Those that have been united, such as the Inhumans, have ended up being the FF’s allies.  I think the story of the FF is how family changes us.  Reed Richards could use his genius intellect to take over the world or at least make billions with his inventions.  The Council of Reeds, a collection of Reed Richards’ from other dimensions, all have proved a major threat to their worlds without their family to root them to the side of good.  Doctor Doom will never conquer the world, he is doomed the fail, for he shuns the company of family (trying to brainwash his adopted son for instance).  However Reed is made stronger by his family backing him up.


The core of Spider-Man has been responsibility, as handed down to him by his Uncle Ben.  If you have the power, you have to use it.  Unfortunately, plenty of Spider-Man’s foes would disagree, or at the least not use their powers for good.  Doctor Octopus, Sandman, Venom, Electro, Molten Man and key foe Green Goblin were all products of accidents, gaining their powers unintentionally or not realising the full cost of their bargains (Scorpion).  But these villains are villains because they had a choice, sometimes they do good (Will O’ The Wisp, Sandman) mostly, they shun their responsibility.  In life sometimes outside out control we are given options.  What we do with those options is entirely ours, however.  Life throws stuff at us, but it’s out responsibility to either throw stuff back or run and hide.

The Avengers

At the heart of the Avengers is change, difference and variety.  The Avengers have seen through their ranks aliens, mutants, sorcerers, patriots, spies, Gods, scientists, ex-criminals, androids and, most importantly, plenty of ex-villains.  Whilst the Justice League can be defined to perhaps 8-12 specific individuals (all of which heavy-hitters in the DC Universe) the Avengers has a core of 3-4 and the rest a rotating line-up of stock characters who would never (and have never) proved interesting solo characters.  But Hawkeye, Vision, Wonder Man, Scarlet Witch etc etc have all proved to flourish with a larger cast.  And take a look at their enemies, from time-travelling warlords (Kang), evil brothers (Grim Reaper), robots with daddy issues (Ultron), Sons O’ Nazis (Baron Zemo), Asguardian Gods (Loki) and Titans (Thanos).  Their teammates have often fought each other, Yellowjacket becoming a threat to the team, Hulk has fought plenty of members over the years.  The Thunderbolts, a perfect example of how Avengers villains can swap back-and-forth from villainy to heroism.  Things change.  Our enemies can become friends, friends can become enemies.  Those we know and love may become estranged, those we consider strangers might just become our closest friends.


Supes is the ultimate immigrant.  A being from another world.  Some from a foreign world with strange customs.  Lex Luthor is the big businessman, the politician, the capitalist.  Superman as an immigrant is treated as a threat by Luthor, who feels he must crush this ‘difference’ to reclaim control over America and Metropolis and, indeed, the world.  Superman keeps his culture to himself, his Kryptonian heritage sitting neatly alongside his Kansas upbringing.  Superman is the perfect American, accepting his ‘alien’ background and his role in America, and the perfect example of Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” ideology.  A mechanic can offer their skills to America, a Nurse theirs.  Superman, being super-strong, invulnerable and able to fly, offers his powers to the cause of Truth, Justice & The American Way.  Luthor is the establishment, no ideology, no patriotism, no American-idealism.  Just pure control and power wrapped inside legitimate business.  The Superman vs. Luthor dynamic is how you offer your skills in service to, or for, your country.

The Hulk is a tricky one, and requires more thought.  Batman and The Joker/Two-Face/Riddler dynamic has been looked at plenty of times.  The Flash and Green Lantern villains always seem to be common crooks/aliens respectively, with no set ‘theme’, but maybe I need to research more.  Feel free to disagree, millions would.

Little Victories

Little Victories

So we’re coming up to 2 years since the Coalition government was formed and began chipping away at Britain.  They’ve raised tuition fees, cut pensions, attacked strikers, illegalised squatting, forcibly ejected occupations, demonised strikers, incited riots, supported a Workfare scheme, spent billions on the Olympics and the Royal Weddings, cut disability benefits,  evicted a major traveller site, bombed a foreign country, sought to privatise the NHS, education and roads and even taxed our pasties!  Not bad for only a couple of years.

A year ago, we felt this ConDem government was weak.  The student demos has just died down, but the march and occupations on 26th March felt like the activists had really upset the government and the Unions were poised for mobilisation.  Now, it seems people are beginning to accept what they must have done in the early 80s:  The Tories are in, just try and deal with it for x amount of years and vote for Labour next time.  There are still very dedicated activists, Unionists and organisations out there, but it seems nothing large-scale has happened for a while.  Defeatism seems a little too rife.

To combat this, I want to flag up some instances in literature.  I call these Little Victories.  I recently read Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup & Barely.  Written in 1956 and revived last year at the Royal Court, the play shows three decades of a small Jewish household in London rooted in Communism.  As the blurb states, “[Wesker thinkers internationally, yet feels domestically” (Kenneth Tyson, The Observer).  1936 is a time for fighting in unity, the first few scenes show the fight back against Mosley’s Black Shirts and the police and a community thriving in left-wing politics.  However despite this, various the struggles, the failures, setbacks and disillusioned ex-comrades mean that by 1956 the family is a splintered, and the movement with it.  The main character, Sarah Kahn, is nursing an old and fragile husband with estranged family and friends.  But despite all this, as Sarah Khan pleads to her son in the final scene, “You’ve got to care or you’ll die”.  As the domestic falls apart, so too has the movement.  But her will still drives on, and her control over what she has left is proof that the movement still has sway.  As long as she is determined to strive on a domestic level, then the battle still continues on the grand scale.

Take another example, Torchwood’s Children of Earth mini-series in which the government of Great Britain send the children with the lowest school test scores as fodder to appease intergalactic alien junkies.  At the very end, one small Welsh estate fights back against their children being taken away, leading to pitched battles in the street.  Whilst all over the country, children are blindly being herded from their suspicious, but passive, parents, at least one small group takes matters into their own hands.  Similarly I recently saw The Hunger Games, and marvelled at the scene where District 11 rise up in anger over the 12-year old Rue being killed for sport.  A little spark can start a fire.

There are various other examples, scenes from Prison Break to She, The Ultimate Weapon and I’m sure countless others, but what I’m getting at is the smaller victories and battles feed into the larger movement.

If there are no large scale protests or action, when there is no giant city-wide event to manage, we must remember to make sure our house is in order.  Wait for the national action, but focus on the local.  Think internationally, feel domestically.  As Al Baker sings “Get to know your neighbours, that’s what it’s all about/we’ll all be a whole lot better when the oil all runs out”.

Small scale action, protests, rallies and organised talks help to build and pin us together.  I’m not saying blindly fight through, jade yourself to defeatism and wear yourself out.  But every little action has a reaction, every little thought and writing and protest does feel into the larger stage.

The activists in York are all on friendly terms, we have a drink together, we chat about politics, we welcome anyone into the little movement.  So when it comes to organising something like Nov 30th or March 26th, it feels like an extended family.  Whether there’s 20 of us on a little protest of 200 outside the Minster or 2000 outside Parliament if we have built this family community during the quieter times, it will sustain us in the radical times.

And a note on Trenton Oldfield who yesterday forced the Cambridge vs. Oxford Boat Race to stop and restart.  Whilst I like a theatrical protest, the problem is his manifesto seems incredibly long-winded.  Him acting alone shows courage and individuality, but unfortunately makes him appear a solo ‘nutter’ without a group or organisation backing him up, which doesn’t help his anti-elitism stance.  Compare to the Disabled People Against Cuts action a few weeks ago.  It was a collective and colourful demonstration against a specific welfare reform with a defiant aim supported by thousands across the country getting a message across.  Trenton’s disruption of the Boat Race sadly does not have this specific aim, only to highlight the elitism of OxBridge and London, something we who follow Boat Races or reports on Boat Races already sort of know.  I don’t necessarily think this is much of a victory for anyone, though he’s along the right lines, but I feel civil disobedience has to have more of a specific aim/target/cause else be backed by a lot more people, else it is washed away by the media, brushed aside by the public and has no longer-lasting tie-in.