August 16, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The Globe Mysteries @ Shakespeare’s Globe

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The Bardathon is going medieval on its readers this week. On Friday I’ll be seeing Everyman performed over Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church, and this afternoon, on a whim, I took a break from referencing in the British Library to catch the Globe’s new production of Tony Harrison’s Mysteries on the other side of the river.

I didn’t catch the original outings of Harrison’s text at the National, but the Globe’s version is a paired down version of that multiple-part play. Fans of the Bible might have been surprised at the speed at which the Old Testament was dispensed with: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, and Abraham and Isaac were rattled through in the first forty minutes, and then the scene cut straight to Mary and Joseph. The Nativity and Passion took up most of the remainder of the show, with a few interpolated episodes – including Mak the Sheep Stealer. After the Crucifixion, the play then focussed primarily on Catholic mythology: the scourging of Hell by Jesus, the Ascension of Jesus and the death of Mary, and finally the Last Judgement. Creation to Revelation in just under three hours is quite a feat.

My main issues with the production were to do with Harrison’s text. As a literary critic I appreciated what he’d created: a combination of a deeply archaic Yorkshire dialect, spiced up with a few choice modern epiphets, in the form of alliterative poetry. As an audience member, however, this was deeply frustrating. The repeated alliteration in the heavy accents (and please do remember I’m a Northern boy myself – this isn’t a culture clash) made too much of the dialogue simply unintelligible. This was most obvious in the Crucifixion scene, where the fast banter of the four Knights sounded like a continuous, almost wordless slur.

With this script, the production needed a game cast, and happily I’ve never seen a company enjoy its work so much. Paul Hunter’s Lucifer and Philip Cumbus’s Gabriel set the tone early on. Cumbus read a Prologue, during which he threatened to ram mobile phones up our arses if they were to go off, and established a winking rapport with the audience. Hunter set up in competition, his smug Lucifer raising his eyebrows at the crowd as he toyed with his subordinate angels. Sat in God’s throne, sipping a cup of tea, he was the consummate charismatic villain.

Director Deborah Bruce and designer Jonathan Fensom established a DIY aesthetic for the production, evoking the origin of the Mysteries in craftsmanship and guilds. An upper level served for Heaven, with a comfy chair for God and sunbeams receding into the distance. The trap was opened for Hell, spewing foul smoke over the stage. Props and scenery were hand-created. Noah’s Flood and the River Jordan were evoked by a long blue banner held across the stage at waist-height, with a design of fishes painted on it. A ladder was used for the Ascension, and balloons represented the Tree of Knowledge. This aesthetic was foregrounded in God’s Creation, for which David Hargreaves’s cardigan-wearing deity dragged on a utility cart piled high with packing crates, from which Adam and Eve emerged.

God watched over the action from Heaven, accompanied by a Chorus of cheerful, childlike angels who wore cassocks with painted wings. Gabriel, wearing a prefect badge, was chief among these, and they served as invisible stagehands, helping and providing for the human characters in a benign manner, and reacting in horror to Lucifer’s usurpation of God’s throne. They provided the production’s main unifying aspect; without this, it would largely have been a series of disparate episodes. Happily, Jesus’s descent to Hell saw him retrieve the Old Testament characters after an hilarious confrontation with Lucifer and his cronies – a chavvy Beelzebub and Ribald as a Hell’s Angel.

Amid the joking (Noah’s Wife knitting football scarves ahead of the FA Cup! Knights taking photos of each other in front of the cross!) were some serious moments. The production lingered over the anguish of Joe Caffrey’s Abraham as he prepared to kill his son, and the quiet death of Mary in a wheelchair was delicately-handled. Poignantly, as the older Mary (Helen Weir) left the stage, her younger counterpart from the Nativity scenes (Ony Uhiara) appeared in Heaven next to Jesus. More spectacular, and more horrific, was the slaughter of the innocents. Mothers had blankets torn from their arms by soldiers, which unravelled to spill dozens of dummies over the stage. Then Hunter’s Herod was revealed upstage, standing over a mesh of bloodied dolls. The effect was muted by the speed at which this fast-paced production moved on, but it lingered nonetheless.

Most powerful, unsurprisingly, were the Passion scenes. William Ash’s Jesus was a clean-shaven, dreadlocked and sprightly man, wearing white shirt and jeans and thus apparently on loan from Jesus Christ Superstar (see also: Cumbus’s Judas all in black and wearing a leather jacket). The length of time given to these scenes allowed for some lovely touches. Notably, the company received a spontaneous and prolonged round of applause when, during the Last Supper, they suddenly froze in the positions of the figures in Da Vinci’s painting; and Peter’s denial was surprisingly moving. The most powerful moments were reserved for Jesus, though. The production’s first half closed as he moved slowly round the yard, hauling the enormous wooden crossbar of his cross, while the company sang a deep and powerful dirge from the stage. The singing was powerful throughout, including a sober number by the souls of the Old Testament.

For the Crucifixion itself, an enormous girder was set up which, with the effort of most of the company, was eventually hauled to an upright position in the pit, with Jesus hanging high over the heads of the groundlings. This coup de theatre took too long to set up and dismantle, but allowed for the powerful effect of his final, screamed words. His subsequent appearances to his disciples were entertaining, particularly as he munched on chips to prove his substance.

The climax, though, came with the good-humoured division of the groundlings into the Saved and the Damned, with barriers put up down the centre and some good-humoured ribbing as angels chose who looked dodgy. For it was the audience who were ultimately at the centre of the entire performance. Whether being called upon to choose between Jesus and Barabbas, being taunted by Lucifer or asked to praise Mary, the production repeatedly reminded us that it was (historically, of course) all for our edification. Jesus delivered a final lecture to us about the need to help others, before joining the rest of the company for an informal jig. Obviously this was a secular production, which qualified its values carefully (the image of the dead babies particularly resounded) and particularly enjoyed presenting the image of a shepherd kissing a sheep disguised as a baby in the entirely un-Biblical “Mak” episode; but at its heart lay a basic appeal to community and mutual awareness that I found effective. A lovely revival.

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