THE York Minster Mystery Plays 2016 arrive just as the most recent British Social Attitudes survey records the highest number yet of people in England and Wales choosing to say they have “no religion”.
I would tick that box myself if asked, yet an atheist or agnostic can still draw much from the common humanity of these biblical stories, stories so familiar they are woven into our souls, even if we think we don’t have one.
This is only the second time in 700 years that the Plays have been performed in York Minster, the other being in 2000. The last big-scale production four years ago took place on a gigantic stage built round the abbey ruins in Museum Gardens.
That production and this are very different, although the narrative is naturally more or less the same, beginning with the creation and other Old Testament stories, following the birth, life and death of Jesus, then the resurrection and, just before home time, the end of the world (starting at 7.30pm and ending at 11.20pm, you may feel the end is a long time coming).
This Jesus, in the shape of Philip McGinley, is lifted as if from the pages of the Children’s Illustrated Bible, the Jesus we were told about when young. The last Jesus, in the shape of Ferdinand Kingsley, was more of a man-of-the-people Jesus. And the 2012 production as a whole felt like the people’s Plays, closer to the notion of the Mystery Plays as the greatest story as told by ordinary souls with rough hands.
There is a lot of Old Testament business to get through before the main man arrives, and that is where Phillip Breen’s supremely confident production is most visually striking, thanks to the astonishing designs and visual fun conjured up by designer Max Jones.
Perhaps first we should address that stage, a huge flight of steps that rises high above the Minster floor, with two levels on the way up and another at the dizzy top. At the foot of the steps there is an all-purpose opening that, with lighting effects from Tina MacHugh, can become the bowels of hell or the tomb where Jesus rolls away the stone.
The performance in writer Mike Poulton’s version of the Mystery Plays takes place up and down those steps, and on a long raised platform between the seats nearest the front; other seats are raised in a steep bank facing the stage.
The Creation is summoned up by Max Jones with a huge molten earth projected high above the stage, and – in one of many beautiful touches – giant balloon planets brought on by cast members. These rise high into the Minster’s heavenly spaces, gently bumping into each other.
Adam and Eve do their illicit apple-biting beneath a huge tree wheeled on a cart, and then we have Noah and his nagging shrew of a wife. While Mrs Noah expresses her voluble doubts, her husband does God’s bidding and builds the ark, neatly designed as a boat-like shed erected before that useful opening, so that when the floods come the animals can walk onto the boat and disappear.
And those animals are one of this production’s truest delights, a puppet parade of penguins, chimps, pigs and more, and even splendid elephants nudging their way into the ark. And a pair of doomed dodos that scarper too late to the raised ramp.
After the nativity, the slaughter of the innocents strikes a suitably sombre note with the dead babies represented by dolls that are pulled apart but remain connected by a blooded string; as too is the properly disturbing tale of Abraham being called on by God to sacrifice his son Isaac (perhaps such biblical horrors help explain that ‘no religion’ box).
McGinley’s Jesus is soon fully grown – Mary and Joseph must have fed him well – and in his first scene, a verbal joust with Lucifer (an excellent turn from York actor Toby Gordon), he strips to the waist to reveal a honed physique – a gym Jesus, if you will.
That moment, a cold moment for the actor surely, suggested that McGinley might be a modern Jesus, but in the event the presentation is, as mentioned, very traditional, down to the pure white robes he wraps himself in after the resurrection.
Whether or not you warm to this glowing style of Jesus is a matter of taste, but McGinley gives a properly human performance and his suffering seems real, as too does the tidal pull of his charisma. He holds that massive stage with his presence, and the crucifixion is monumental in scale, the crosses huge and heavy.
Of course the true stars of this production are the very many community actors, from the massed ranks of amateurs up to young professionals such as Toby Gordon. The sheer scale of the production, and the musical direction of Richard Shepherd (lovely, interesting music, if too loud at times), add up to something remarkable.
Any downsides? Well, performing inside York Minster is a visual treat, but the acoustics are tricky, and actors who don’t speak clearly enough are lost to the echo.
And there is that running time. Some in the audience may be praying for their bed long before the end or worrying about the last bus home.
Yet despite its great length, the production goes at a fair lick, although a few more trims might help matters along.
In the end, though, this is a stupendous theatrical event and another example of York’s community of players at work. And even if you tick the box marked ‘no religion’, you should be sure not to miss out.
The production runs until June 30.