Reviews ManchesterNational Published 7 November 2018

Review: The Mysteries at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

25 October - 11 November

‘A myth sceptical of myths’: James Varney writes on place and ownership in Chris Thorpe’s cycle of contemporary Mystery plays.

James Varney
Laurietta Essien in The Mysteries at the Royal Exchange. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

Laurietta Essien in The Mysteries at the Royal Exchange. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

The Mysteries is Sam Pritchard and Chris Thorpe’s cycle of six plays. Each play is written out of a relationship with a place in the North of England, in sequence they represent places of increasing population size: Eskdale, Staindrop, Whitby, Boston, Stoke-on-Trent, Manchester. The five non-Manchester plays have all already been performed in the places they are set. The whole sequence is being performed in Manchester in its entirety only twice, on the 4th and 11th November.

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It ought to be difficult to own the things we don’t know. It would be easy to dismiss those things as not part of the fabric of life. It would also be easy not to. It would be easy to sit somewhere between – gesture at the fact there are unknown things, and that they matter, that they are important because we have left them as they are. There are mysteries in the ways we live with each other, in the places we have created, the stories we tell each other. Our relationship to them is constant and casual. Everything doesn’t need to be explainable; those mysteries are the spaces where culture breathes. Comment isn’t something that needs to be called into being – if we have an awareness of a thing, we have an attitude to it. ‘Meaningful’ is a perspective.

The Mysteries wrestle always with perspective. Their characters bring themselves to each story, and they are all they have. Chris Thorpe writes characters who are inseparable from their surroundings. All their significance, the things they know and believe, are drawn from the accident of the place they are in. The community of a place, in The Mysteries, is a collection of thoroughly different people, who each have a perfect right to the place they find themselves in, because for each of them (what we see of them) it defines them.

There are no outside voices. Even in Eskdale, the first play of the cycle, Ginny comes to the area having been born and raised in Manchester. Her Mother, her whole family before her were from here and she is as much an element of the place as anybody else. The arguments of The Mysteries are not about whether people belong to a place, but in what way they believe themselves to be, or are allowed to be. In Boston, play four, a child has died. His parents were Lithuanian, but he was born and brought up here. His death is a shock, as the death of a child always is. The struggles in the script are over what him being there means. When dead, (and always dead – we never see him) his significance is up for grabs and the place consumes him.

In Staindrop, huge amounts of the local land and property are owned by the local Lord (this is true). This play is set in the home of Ginny and Amy, which is owned by the Lord; their rent is going up. It is also set in a mythic nowhere, where we are told a local story of the history of the place – of a Lord centuries past and his sense of ownership of the land, the people. It is fluid in its telling – we are told it depends where and who and how it is told, the details change. Perhaps the Lord is benevolent and well-loved, perhaps he is cruel and despised. But the consistent details are his title, his use of the land he believes to be his, and the knowledge that his descendants continue to own property, wield power.

What crises there are in The Mysteries, they are rarely just small and personal. Because these six pieces are not so much ‘plays’. They are not the narrative journey of a lead character(s) and minor character(s) but of a thought, or series of thoughts. Characters are a tool, a device for asking questions. And oh, they change, they do the character thing of having their lives, actions and opinions, they do go on a journey, but though the journey might be a small one, Thorpe reminds us that is is taken between two points on a landscape larger than any of them, or us. The purpose of the action is abstracted away from the small people we see, partly because we know the surrounding whole of The Mysteries is much larger. An hour-long section is only a piece.

It’s presumptuous to say ‘we’, or ‘us’. I hate it when theatre reviews say ‘we’. ‘We’ is as much a mythical symbol as those which The Mysteries sets in its sights. I am sceptical of it. The Mysteries urge ‘us’ to be sceptical, or maybe to be credulous. Within Boston, the performers break character, to ask that we might not see the dead boy (remember the dead boy?) as a metaphor. To not see him as ‘of Lithuanian descent’ or some macabre expression of the violence of nationality and borders, but as a dead child. Macabre, but not an instrument.

And it becomes suddenly perverse, in the fourth play of six, to ascribe meaning or image to any of the preceding or following events. But they’re not things that happen, they’re stories we are told. Even if it is perverse to see metaphor when asked not to, it is a trick of our pattern-seeking imaginations. It’s theatre, we’re here to see patterns.

There is an essential distance in The Mysteries – Chris Thorpe has written the script(s) but he writes from an outside. Though every inhabitant of the places we are shown has the deepest right to own, and be owned by, it, they all do so differently. The very place itself – whether the preserved countryside of Eskdale, or the cultural history of Whitby – is slippery, unknowable. The most accurate description of each place is its name. Which, on its own, means little.

Patterns emerge like they do when you watch anything for eight hours. The perspective that ownership of place is an absurd abomination runs through. The enforcement of ownership is my relationship with landlords – the notion of ownership implies exclusion. If there are those who own, or are owned, there are those who do/are not. The enforcement of ownership is the clutching at symbols, the stamping of a seal, the forcing of a name. But significance cannot be seized and manipulated, meaning is always a matter of perspective – and places are messy with perspective; they have so many people.

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You may notice, in the above, that some places are so small that they must be called ‘areas’ – because ‘town’ is too large a word, ‘village’ too concentrated. Eskdale is a ‘valley and civil parish’, its population is 304. Manchester is wholly different – bigger than itself, a city and metropolitan borough with a population of 545,500, Greater Manchester is a metropolitan area with a population of 3.2 million. I would struggle at a definition of the city itself, were I asked to draw a line. I am a member of both those numbers, though. I am a member of the larger numbers which describe the North West, the North, England, the UK.  I fit in my own way into the ways we carve up the world into pockets of people.

The premise of The Mysteries creates a new geography. The sort that happens spontaneously every day, now we’ve got the internet, which connects us through small things we might have in common. Each of the locations has joined some new whole, being ‘those places that were in The Mysteries’, like a twinning. And I’m contributing today to that new mythology, by committing words to record, commemorate its existence. It is a geography spread to each of the 400-odd audience members on Sunday. Because performing a piece of theatre is to create a new, spontaneous community. Is to ask us to remember we are here together.

Of course, though, The Mysteries is a big city project. It has the means to exist, it is a mammoth body of work. It is a kind of research project and it is a model of theatre making all its own, devised to sustain itself. Though each piece is rehearsed in the locality it is a response to, in an embedded kind of theatrical-geographic survey, The Mysteries is, in fact, the result of a top-down visitation of power. Each performance returns, inevitably, to Manchester.

This is exactly the kind of power, like authorial agency, which is tackled in Stoke. Amy returns to the city to run for local council and comes up against Gerry, who resents her national politics. Stoke is a different place, a coalition of towns, it does not see the world the same way the world sees it, he argues. To come in from outside, to look inwards, cynically, will earn her nothing. But I do not for a minute want to suggest that self-awareness is sufficient to neutralise the violence of the power The Mysteries, as theatre project, could have brought with it to small places. The relationship between power and conversation is a difficult and messy one, and trust in such contexts is hard-won.

The other half of Stoke is the relationship between Ginny and Andy, each of whom have a chip on their shoulder about their place in the world. The antagonism in their interaction comes from the assumptions they each make about how they imagine themselves to be seen. They are uneasy because they imagine themselves under attack. Identifying people who are capable of hurting you, though, does not in the end mean that they will.

I cannot be the judge of the success of its project, but if The Mysteries has succeeded in making Manchester more relevant to the smaller settlements that it has been created with, and in making those places more relevant to the settlement they have all come together in, then that is surely some kind of success. For one, I live for the vision of a utopic theatre landscape which connects distant and different places through cycles of plays.

For every place featured in The Mysteries, the piece inspired by it was performed there in a double-bill with a reading of the final, Manchester, section. The props for each section are sourced from the area and there is an extensive acknowledgements list in the programme, thanking tens of people from each location. The Mysteries are a product of consultation, of sharing and listening and (the impression I get is) of a restraint and respect when holding the pen.

The virtue I see in this model of action is that the meeting with people and communities who are ‘different’ is not with the purpose of eliminating that difference. It is done to increase the number of connections between people, not decrease the things which distinguish us. Which is to say these places now have something more in common, without having less to set them apart.

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I ought to be sceptical of that notion of connection, though. Surely. Because I am in Manchester, in the Royal Exchange, even. Of course the stories feel respectful in the context I see them in. It’s in my interest to see the experience of an all-dayer eight-hour theatre marathon as a vindicating experience. What sort of person would I be to sit through it if I came away embittered? The truth is that I cannot know the impact of this piece, this project, on the smaller places. And I never will, really. I am not from them, and every attitude I approach this production and review with refuses to correlate with the idea that I can understand these places by watching or studying a theatrical project.

But that’s never been the point. The point (or part of it) is in the act of transposition. This Manchester performance is the first of only two times The Mysteries is performed in its entirety. And each of the single elements is transformed by being in Manchester, by finally being accompanied by the other four plays that were not performed in their respective places. Manchester gives The Mysteries as a whole an altering context.

The power of context to alter meaning is a feature of theatre. There is a reason we need to meet in a room and watch these living people act stories out together. If we were told these stories in a different way, they would not mean the same thing. There have been six versions of The Mysteries; the five performed as solo plays, and this behemoth performed in Manchester. I think that each of them is equally and purely the true version of the show. It’s natural to me that the huge, sprawling messy combination of the six plays is what I am seeing in the main space of the Royal Exchange. How else is a contradictory giant of a place to alter anything?

In Whitby, play number three, a pair of friends occupy the roof of a closed Tourist Information Centre. Its function has deserted it, and it is to be transformed into a restaurant. Andy is manic in his rejection of its fate, Amy is accepting. It is fruitless, to her, to attempt to preserve something which has outlived its function. Whitby is a site of fiction, living in the shadow of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but also within its own fictional self. The draw of the place for tourists is the power of its artifice. There are places of historical significance in Whitby, because real things happened. But also places of fictional significance, because stories were told about them. The draw of these two forces brings people to the same place. It is the stories which pull, rather than the accidents which created them.

It is Manchester’s agency which comes at the end of the cycle. As the largest place, as the commissioning home of the piece, it exerts itself and has the option to assert ownership or deny it. In performance here at the Exchange the Manchester text feels strange. Especially to know that it has been heard in every other place before this, but that tonight is the first time it will appear at the cap of every other play before it.

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Manchester is the shortest and the least resembling a ‘play’ of the Mysteries cycle. By now, time is not behaving itself. I have been inside this for so long, inside Manchester, that things are distorted. I have the most embodied response, naturally, to Manchester. I live here. I am Manchester and it is me. But then, I do not experience Manchester ‘naturally.’ That might be a dangerous lie to tell myself.

Much of the themes of The Mysteries as a whole crystallise here. Thorpe addresses the Manchester Arena Bombing of June last year and the mass-conjuring of that thing called ‘Manchester’ that happened amongst us who live here, or know here, or have heard of here, and hold it dear in some way. Manchester became a series of images, it became flower and candle memorials and Oasis songs and poems and tattoos of bees. A tragedy brought out what is good and beautiful and noble in ‘us’ and we celebrated the power of the Manchester we all belonged to, in our personal and true way.

And Thorpe reminds us that the bomber was also from Manchester. That yes, this city is a powerful and loving thing and it is comfort to many, but somehow it lost someone. And there aren’t answers or solutions for the pain that person brought. But somewhere, the myth we live inside of wasn’t enough.

The air we breathe here is Manchester, and The Mysteries draws on it. The evening ends inside a myth sceptical of myths, inside a theatre sceptical of theatres. Tonight, today, we have been drawn together for eight hours, we have become a larger thing. But there are always spaces. Possession implies its own outside.

The Mysteries close, a hymn cautioning against the danger of irresponsible owning, and belonging.

The Mysteries is on at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 11th November. More info here.

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James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

Review: The Mysteries at the Royal Exchange, Manchester Show Info


Directed by Sam Pritchard

Written by Chris Thorpe

Cast includes Nigel Barrett, Benjamin Cawley, Nadia Clifford, Laurietta Essien, Hannah Ringham, Andrew Sheridan

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