There couldn’t be a better week to see a Mystery Cycle. Once the prime theatrical event of a medieval city’s cultural and religious calendar, the Mystery plays engulfed an entire city in a promenade performance which spanned the Christian history of the globe from creation to annihilation. Presented on the open streets or on the backs of great pageant wagons hauled with manpower through the town, they were a symbol of the city’s various guilds, trades and classes joining together to celebrate something greater than themselves. To celebrate God, but also to celebrate their community and its achievements.
The Mystery plays were as civic as they were devout, and the guilds who performed the biblical vignettes would take the opportunity to promote their own wares at the same time. The pinners (nail-makers) and painters who present the crucifixion ensure that we observe how sturdily their nails hold Christ splayed; the bakers fill the Last Supper with their very best loaves. It is this sense of the everyday and mundane mingling democratically with the miraculous and divine which the Globe’s latest version of the Mysteries achieves so well.
Delivered in robust and witty alliterative verse adapted from a number of traditional cycles, Harrison’s Mystery Plays retain the earthy humour and playful anarchy of the medieval originals, and are well matched by a rough hewn production where God unpacks creation from wooden shipping crates and sits on high sipping tea from his favourite armchair. The angels wear hoodies and the knights sent to crucify Jesus wear donkey jackets and happy slap the Saviour with their iPhones. The modern interventions and irreverent asides aren’t intended as gimmickry, but as an assertion that this great story was told for the people, and that it is the people themselves, the everyday greedy, faithful, hateful, brilliant people who are its rightful owners.
A generally strong ensemble cast tackle the dozens of roles, and though there are naturally moments in which the chemistry stutters, there are also plenty of strong comic set-pieces and surprisingly affecting vignettes. Michael Hargreaves plays God as a care-worn landowner, rising to terrible intensity in the face of mortal disobedience. He is well matched by Paul Hunter’s toadish Lucifer, and Hunter’s comic powers give a notable invigoration to every scene he enters.
Hunter has been a great asset to the Globe this season, his bug-eyed clowning striking the perfect tone for open-air theatre. William Ash plays both Isaac and Jesus with more than a hint of the bumpkin, and though he looks suitably pathetic raised high on the cross, he is often irritating, and the New Testament material quickly begins to drag. This problem is exacerbated by the Mysteries length and episodic nature. Deborah Bruce has directed many of the individual scenes with great wit and energy, but by the time Christ has risen their relentless march begins to pall. Presented in promenade where the audience can share in the dynamism of the staging and these plays never fail to draw spectators in, but here by the inventive climactic battle, they’re just too tired to participate.
Olly Fox’s music fails to raise the spirits, never quite striking the right tone or reaching the euphoric heights at which it aims. Neither funereal or festive enough in its turn, the dirges are carried away by the wind and the jigging feels forced. Much better is Jonathan Fensom’s design, which sees Heaven bursting out the stage in a halo of ladders, rakes and garden hoes. There could be no finer symbol for the strange mixture of civic pride, bawdy humour and spiritual passion which drove the pageant wagons and which Harrison’s work continues to embody.