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A CurtainUp London Review
The Globe Mysteries
The tradition of mystery plays goes back to the middle ages, a vehicle for informing the masses of the populace of the stories from the Bible, funded by guilds of craftsmen, often displaying their skills and performed in the open air by local people. It is a very hard act to follow, the 11 hours of Mystery plays, which many critics saw at the National Theatre just before Christmas in 1999, on which the poet Tony Harrison had collaborated with Bill Bryden.
There are images from this production which will stay with you, recreating the impact that would have been made on our media starved medieval ancestors. A grey bearded David Hargreaves sits aloft as God as Paul Hunter opens as the fallen angel Lucifer and tempts Eve (Lisa McGrillis) in the Garden of Eden. One of the indelible images is of Adam (Marcus Griffiths) in Y-fronts and Eve in bra and panties which makes a nonsense of the fig leaf costumes! We swiftly move on to the first murder, of Cain (Joe Caffrey) by Abel and Noah (John Stahl)'s building of the Ark. The drowning of those not rescued is emotively improvised and up stretched arms are pulled below the blue fabric cloth of the inundation.
Abraham's (Joe Caffrey) testing with God's required sacrifice of his only son, Isaac (William Ash) switches to the story of Joseph (Matthew Pidgeon) and Mary (Ony Uhiara) and the less known story of the cherry tree. In the cherry tree story, while travelling to Bethlehem for the birth of her child, Mary asks Joseph to pick some cherries for her and he begrudgingly suggests that the father of her child should pick the cherries. An angel appears and lowers the tree mysteriously, both in flower and fruit simultaneously (another miracle?) and Joseph regrets his unkindness.
The slaughter of the Innocents sees Paul Hunter as Herod, wielding garden shears with blood curdling screams of the mothers and a gruesome pile of dead babies. John the Baptist (the magnificent John Stahl) baptises William Ash's gentle Jesus and we rapidly move on to the clever tableau that is Da Vinci's Last Supper, and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas (Philip Cumbus). The first act closes with a moving progress of Jesus through the crowd, strapped to his back, is a massive wooden cross bar.
The opening of the second act is genuinely harrowing as we hear the screams of Jesus as he is nailed to the cross and I found it profoundly moving. I was a bit baffled by the Second Act stories initially dominated by the workmen around the cross who use their mobile phones to take pictures of themselves, in a reference to the insensitivity of modern day culture. Peter (Marcus Griffiths) denies three times and Thomas (Adrian Hood) has his doubts as Jesus is risen. God speaks the Epilogue. On the Day of Judgment the audience is divided down the middle into the Damned and the Saved but it is all too jocular.
The rhythm of Tony Harrison's rhyming couplets with its vernacular and old pronunciation, delivered with Yorkshire accents, provides real aural atmosphere coupled with some wonderful music from the Globe's resident musicians. There also topical jokes which amuse the audience. However the rapidity of the tale telling in Deborah Bruce's production largely detracts from the emotional impact of the majesty that should be the mysteries, except in the nailing to the cross which registered true passion.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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