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York Mystery Plays
06 August 2012

The Carmelite Order has been involved in supporting the 'Mystery Plays' in the northern English city of York since they were first performed in the fourteenth century. This year members of the Carmelite Family have taken part in the Plays in a number of ways, in the most epic production of the Mysteries ever staged.

Mystery Plays were performed in a number of cities in medieval England. The York Cycle is among the most famous, originally performed by trade guilds in a series of 48 separate short pageants presenting Bible stories from Creation to the Last Judgment. They were originally performed on open-air wagons across the city on the feast of Corpus Christi. The Carmelite friary in medieval York was the meeting place of the Cordwainers (Leather-workers) Guild, who performed 'The Arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane'.

Though suppressed as part of Henry VIII's Reformation, the Mystery Plays were revived in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, condensed into a 3-hour outdoor performance of highlights from the cycle. Since 1951 the Plays have been staged every 3 or 4 years, sometimes on carts, but more usually in York Minster, York Theatre Royal, or in the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey.

The York Mystery Plays 2012 production has been particularly ambitious, billed as the largest outdoor theatre event in northern England this year, and staged as part of the York800 celebrations marking the 8th centenary of the city receiving its royal charter.

Between 2nd and 27th August the Plays are being performed in the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey to an audience of over 30,000 people.

The range of people involved is the largest ever: 500 actors in two parallel casts, with some 1,700 volunteers in behind-the-scenes creative and supportive roles. The Mystery Plays have always been seen as belonging to the people of York, and community involvement has been essential to the 2012 production. To watch a video about the community dimension of the Plays, click on the arrow in the YouTube box below.

Preparations for the 2012 York Mystery Plays began many months ago, with the production being a collaboration between York Museums Trust, York Theatre Royal, and York-based Christian theatre company Riding Lights.

The faith-dimension of the Mystery Plays is obvious, and many Christian churches and organisations are involved in the production.

The Chaplain to the Mystery Plays is Reverend Jane Nattrass, priest-in-charge of the Anglican City Centre Churches in York. In April these churches hosted the 'Missing Mysteries', that is, versions of some of the episodes from the York Cycle not being performed as part of the main production in August. Children aged 11-16 from York Theatre Royal's youth theatre groups performed in six York churches over two days, with members of the public parading from one venue to the next. The episodes began with the story of Cain and Abel in All Saints Pavement Church, and ended with the Coronation of the Virgin Mary in St. Olave's Church.

The story of Mary's Assumption and Coronation was performed by the children
as a piece of news footage.

Young actors carrying flags saying "I love Mary" and a "Good News" newspaper
with the headline "Halo Mary! Coronation sweeps the nation!"

The 'Missing Mysteries' production of Our Lady being assumed into heaven.

The cast of Mary's Coronation in heaven, with Revd. Jane Nattress (back row).

The 'Missing Mysteries' are not the only event running alongside the Mystery Plays production. A series of 'Modern Mysteries' have been written and staged to give a contemporary take on the original Mystery Cycle. A group of photographers and film-makers have been recording rehearsals and all stages of production. Some of York's guilds are performing wagon pageants in the city centre. York Theatre Royal is holding a 'Mystery Soul Festival' of soul and gospel music. Special lectures and walking tours are taking place. The whole city is taking part in this precious part of York's heritage.

The main production, however, is taking place in the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey. Now part of York's Museum Gardens, St. Mary's was once the most powerful Benedictine monastery in the north of England, rivalling York Minster for dominance of the city skyline. Dissolved at the Reformation, it was used as the backdrop of the revived Mystery Plays in the 1950s, which brought to prominence the actor Dame Judi Dench, who is a patron of the modern production.

Construction beginning on the set in the Abbey grounds. This year's
production is the first outdoor seating to provide covering for the audience.

Another patron of the York Mystery Plays 2012 is the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu. He called by to watch rehearsals. The cast consists of 500 actors in two alternating shifts. The only actors to perform every night are those playing God the Father and Jesus (Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Sir Ben Kingsley), and Satan (Graeme Hawley, best known for his role in Coronation Street).

Ferdinand Kingsley (playing God the Father and Jesus)
on set with the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu.

To watch an interview with the headline actors click on the arrow in the YouTube box below.

The 2012 production has been directed by Paul Burbridge (Artistic Director of York-based Riding Lights Theatre Company) and Damian Cruden (Artistic Director of York Theatre Royal). The script, written by Mike Kenny, is a blend of medieval and modern. To watch a video about the artistic vision of the plays click on the arrow in the YouTube box below.

For months the artistic creative team have rehearsed with the enormous cast in venues across the city, including schools, theatres, and - very appropriately - medieval guild halls and churches.

A cast read-through in York Theatre Royal.

Drawing on York's immense local musical talent, a community choir and brass band has been assembled to perform on stage as an integral part of the York Mystery Plays 2012. Among the singers is a member of York Carmelite Spirituality Group, Felicia McCormick.

The brass band adds a particularly northern sound to this great northern production.

The production has drawn a number of royal visitors to York. The Duke of York, Prince Andrew, is one of the patrons. He visited the set and praised the way that the production is bringing together different organisations and businesses across the city. In June his daughter, Princess Beatrice of York, lent a hand in the costume workshops where 60 volunteers were making the 3,000 individual costumes, all inspired by the fashions of the 1940s and 1950s.

Director Damian Cruden with HRH Prince Andrew.

Princess Beatrice visiting the costume workshop.

One of the two alternating casts at their dress rehearsal.

Finally, after months of preparation, the opening night of the York Mystery Plays 2012 arrived on 2nd August. 

Scenes from the York Mystery Plays 2012 production depicting
the casting of Satan and his angels into hell (left) and the garden of Eden.

Just as the medieval players would have created special effects using their wagons,
so the 2012 production used the set to the full and various clever visual tricks,
for example in the building of Noah's Ark.

The birth of Jesus.

The baptism of Jesus.

Jesus washing his disciples' feet.

The last supper.

The crucifixion.

The harrowing of hell.

The end of the first night.

Every night after the Mystery Plays have finished, members of the audience are invited into St. Olave's Church next to the Abbey ruins for Compline (night prayer). This is being led by different Christian groups in the city, and on 15th August (the Assumption) will be led by York Carmelite Spirituality Group.

For details of how to obtain tickets for the York Mystery Plays 2012 click here. Those unable to see the Mystery Plays for themselves but who have internet access will be able to watch a livestream performance on 11th August (from 7pm, with the play beginning at 7.30pm). For details click here.

To see a video trailer of the York Mystery Plays 2012, click on the arrow in the YouTube box below.

Photography: York Mystery Plays 2012 Photography Group