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The Mysteries

Judith Elliott

Adapted by Tony Harrison
Globe Theatre until 2 October


It might be hard to find a connection between the English Medieval Mystery plays, created out of profound faith and adherence to Church doctrine, and our own secular times. The poet Tony Harrison, whose adaptation of a selection of the plays from York, Coventry and Chester is part of the Globe's summer season, believes the answer lies in their working class origins, 'of the people, by the people, for the people'.  And so we are presented not with a drama imbued with reverence and faith, but with an anthropological restructuring of how he believes the plays may have been presented by members of the tradesman's guilds who originally staged them. There's plenty of rough-hewn dialogue and knock-about comedy, but precious little of the wonder of Bible stories that medieval audiences would have known by heart and lived by. A pantomime atmosphere prevails, with the Globe audience quick to pick up on it.  Indeed, at the performance I attended there was a hen party, out to have a good time -  believe it or not, they'd come to the right place.

This updated version of the Mysteries first appeared in 1977 at the National Theatre in a much longer form, with performances lasting all day and presented, like the Medieval originals, in promenade style, moving on to various sites around the South Bank. The current version is squeezed into three hours, with a breathless gallop through biblical highlights, from creation and to last judgement, dropping in on Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac and the life and passion of Christ on the way. Irreverent thoughts of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and the 2-man National Theatre of Brent inevitably spring to mind, although Harrison probably wouldn't mind that at all, as a bit of good old-fashioned fun seems to be his main aim.

The audience fell about as Lucifer clowned around in snakeskin boots, Cain dispatched Abel, and Mary got knocked up  by someone called Gabriel that no-one in her neighbourhood has ever heard of.  The scene where Christ is tried by Pontius Pilate featured an actor holding up a placard prompting the audience to choose Barrabas to go free. Just for a moment I hoped they would ignore that and choose Christ - but no. 'Barrabas' they shouted, like a good pantomime audience following their prompts from the stage.  I found only a few brief moments when I was moved or engaged: one was Christ's desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, the other his crucifixion, where donkey-jacketed workmen cheerfully banged in the nails as they laughed and joked among themselves, ignoring his terrible suffering.  

But it's not long  before knock-about farce reasserts itself, with the last judgement taking the form of a reality television show.  Winning this X factor gets you eternal life.

The experience isn't helped by the Globe's sparse staging: the creation of the earth and the firmament is represented by juggling a few tennis balls, while the sea is a thin piece of blue cloth with fish painted on it - definitely the creation of a universe in double-dip recession.  The music is thin and shrill. Yet the programme has interesting notes about the original Mystery plays, one of them being how much care and imagination went into their staging.  The civic authorities of Coventry, York and Chester took enormous pride in lavishing all the resources they could muster on them - rich tapestries as backdrops, elaborate sets and props. None of this is reflected in the Globe production, where the staging seems downright mean. Yet despite the disappointments of presentation and willful lack of  reverence, the power and magic of those stories that are part of us, heart and bone, shines through, so that you still leave feeling enriched by their message. Whether you consider yourself a believer or not, how diminished a place the world would be without them.

Judith Elliott