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.

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