A Chester Mystery Plays production
June 28 - July 15, 2023; 2 hrs 40 mins
This was an exciting prospect: viewing a play that dates back to before 1375, when Edward III was on the throne, in a venue whose oldest parts date back to 1093 - only seven years younger than the Doomsday Book.
The Chester Mystery Plays take place every five years and in this version involve 300 people from the local community, who have been rehearsing for over six months.
The setting is magnificent - the nave of Chester Cathedral. The stage is an odd shape, dictated by the long, thin nature of the venue. I was fortunate to sit close to the West Window, overlooking the arena where much of the action takes place. It is a challenge to get close to all onlookers, but the cast is careful to walk the length of the nave to ensure all could see the action.
Music and sound effects are excellent: subtle, but a great match for the mood. The props and scenery are simple yet effective, even though the animals from Noah’s ark looked like the prizewinners from a Sunday School competition.
The narrative has a series of 17 plays, seven in Act 1, which deals with the origins of the Old Testament, then fast forwards to the Nativity. Curiously, Abraham, Moses, David and all the prophets are omitted from the plot - 2000 years of Biblical history subject to the director's cut!
The second act deals with events in the life of Christ, before and beyond the grave. In the same way, the early events of Jesus’s public ministry are glossed over, the plot moving quickly on to the end of his story. This is perhaps wise in a performance that nonetheless runs to 170 minutes.
Seeing this story acted out brings the dramatic nature of events to the fore and makes plain much that is implicit. Amid all of the seriousness, it's a nice touch to see the shepherds offering comic relief. The gifts they give are earthy and commonplace, a reflection of their lowly status. Of course the Magi are portrayed as aliens - neither Roman nor Jewish, recognising the universal nature of the message. The play doesn't shirk from the violence at the heart of the narrative. The scene ending Act 1 has a mother, whose child was a victim of the massacre of the innocents, wipe her blood-stained hands down Herod's face as he is taken down by Lucifer. Very graphic.
The centrepiece naturally, is that of Christ's death and resurrection - scenes of graphic violence that can be hard to stage. The Crucifixion is done well, though sometimes feels like a shouting match between the different factions witnessing the event. This to me was the only real weakness of the cast - that in highly-charged, emotional scenes performers could have offered a more controlled venom, rather than simply resorting to a loud voice. But beyond that, the standard of acting is remarkably good.
After a dramatic finale for the last judgement, cast members took bows on a stage barely big enough to contain them all. They seemed pleased with themselves and rightly so, after a thoroughly committed, dramatic performance that offered the desired strong community feel.
The show isn't without its problems - mostly technical - but is well worth seeing in terms of the performance, the narrative and for Christians in particular, the overwhelming nature of its historical significance.
Tickets and information here