Mystery Plays: Is there any role bigger than Jesus?

Game of Thrones and Coronation Street star Philip McGinley will play the lead role in the York Minster Mystery Plays.
Game of Thrones and Coronation Street star Philip McGinley will play the lead role in the York Minster Mystery Plays.
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Philip McGinley tells Julian Cole why acting roles don’t get much bigger than playing Jesus in the York Mystery Plays.

Philip McGinley is busy talking to another journalist, so let’s have a nosey round the rehearsal room while he tells someone else about playing Jesus in the York Mystery Plays. Maclagan Hall is a magnificent timbered space in St William’s College, next to York Minster. It looks like a grand place to rehearse, and the evidence of work in progress is all around. A schedule pinned to a noticeboard tells actors when they are required, with one day’s list beginning: “Michael, Gabriel, Lucifer and Beelzebub…” Sketches of the Minster stage, drawings of costumes and copies of Medieval crucifixion paintings are attached to a wire running round the hall. There are also news photographs of refugees, suggesting a possible theme for the production.

An old suitcase, covered with the labels it has picked up on its travels, sits waiting to be used as a prop; packets of biscuits have been opened; someone has left a copy of Private Eye lying around. I read the Eye and leave the biscuits alone, and then it is my turn.

Philip, 34, turns out to be a charming and likeable actor. He is from Wigan and not Liverpool (bottom of the class, Wikipedia). It so happens that he attended the same school as Phillip Breen, who is directing this production of the Mystery Plays. Breen, now a Royal Shakespeare Company director, pushed him towards acting.

Philip belonged to youth theatres as a boy and then did A-levels in theatre studies and performing arts. At that point he realised he would have to audition for drama school if he wanted to go further, but still he hesitated.

Breen was two years above Philip at Winstanley College. “He was very much a beacon – he got about a hundred As and got into Oxford or Cambridge. I do remember speaking to him at a party and saying: ‘I don’t know whether I am going to audition for drama school, and he was like ‘You must, you have to.’ He really inspired me to go to drama school.”

So he did you a favour then? “Yes, in some ways I owe him one.”

Before coming to York to play Jesus, Philip appeared on tour for a month at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in the National Theatre production of Husbands and Sons by DH Lawrence, following a five-month stint at the National.

Coincidentally, his first professional role had been at the Royal Exchange in a production of Kes, a play based on the novel by Barry Hines, the Barnsley writer who died recently.

“I was one of the boys in the class,” says Philip. “He has a monologue. He stands up in front of the class and he can’t stop speaking about the time he filled his wellington boots up with tadpoles and then his friend dared him to put them on…”

Aside from his many theatre productions, Philip has appeared on TV as Tom Kerrigan in Coronation Street and as Anguy the archer in Game of Thrones.

In Corrie you were a lovable rogue, weren’t you? “Kind of, yeah.”

Philip enjoyed the experience. “It was really fun, a really nice job, really lovely people and I’ve made some friends for life there. As a Northerner, it’s quite iconic, it’s quite special. It was a fun gig.”

He had auditioned many times without success, then a producer rang offering him a role as the cousin of a character he had auditioned for a year ago: “Three eps – three episodes – don’t worry about it”. Those three appearances turned into 69 episodes. “I didn’t know it was going to be that long a time, but I had some fun stories.”

Corrie raised his profile and helped his career. “It did open a few doors and it was a great experience because you learn quickly. It’s a real machine and they are shooting 15 different episodes in any given day because there are three different units at any one time. You can be shooting 15 episodes ahead of what you’ve just done. It’s difficult to remember what’s just happened and what’s about to happen. And that’s all you need to know in soap because it moves so quickly.”

And is there time to learn the lines? “No, but you get really good at it. You get to the point where you can just go into a scene, quickly look down at a page and they’re in. And it’s remarkable, after a year I could just look at anything and it was in there and then it was gone ten minutes later when the scene was done.”

After Weatherfield came the muddy fields of Belfast for Game of Thrones, in which he taught young Arya Stark to handle a bow and arrow. “She seems to be collecting skills,” says Philip. “In the first series she has the gentleman who teaches her swordplay, and then in the third series it’s me teaching her archery and she seems to be incredibly gifted at all of them. God knows what she’s going to be like as a grown-up in the seventh series.”

He cannot talk about a possible return. “I can’t say anything about that really,” he says, pointing to the legal difficulties. What he can say is that he loved the experience, although he did feel short-changed. “All the dragon stuff was shot out in the desert and so they all got to go to the desert. And then all the beyond the wall stuff was in Iceland, so they got to go to Iceland because it was icy. And we got to film in the muddy forests just outside Belfast.”

But never mind, now he is Jesus in the Mystery Plays. When the plays were performed in 2012, they were set on a majestically massive stage in Museum Gardens. Now they will return to the Minister for only the second time, following a sold-out run in 2000. The writer on this production is Mike Poulton, who wrote the scripts for the RSC’s production of Hilary Mantel’s historical bestsellers, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies.

Philip has never seen the Mystery Plays before but is taking everything in his stride. He is not, he says with a smile, intimidated by the well-known actors who have played Jesus before, such as Christopher Timothy and Robson Green.

“I’m not panicked at all about it because it doesn’t really feel it’s about me,” he says. “It’s such a community thing. Obviously there is a responsibility I have which I am very much looking forward to. And also I am somewhat daunted by it in the same way that you would be daunted by any new job. It’s very much about the community and the size of the cast and that’s what drew me to it.”

That casts runs to 220.

Whenever he approaches rehearsals, Philip likes to investigate his character. “I like to do research on the subject matter, which obviously in this case is the Bible. I’ve been reading it and I’ve also been reading a book called Who’s Who in the Bible, which is really useful.

“My job is I’m in a scene and who’s that speaking to me? I need to know who these people are and what relationship I have to them, whether they are powerful people, greedy people.”

He is also interested in the aesthetics of a role and has been looking at religious art from the Middle Ages. “I bought some books from the National Gallery, and there is an entire book on the Crucifixion alone. It’s really inspiring to have these images because we will be creating such huge images, paintings almost.”

Philip believes that the role will be physically demanding, but generally he likes to keep fit by running, cycling and doing gym work.

“It’s going to be heavy lifting that cross every night. And also shoulders-wise, to be like that – [he stretches out his arms] – every night for 20 minutes or so, it’s really hard, and I’m going to have to do quite a lot of deltoid work. But I like that and it’s a good challenge.”

After the Mystery Plays, and all those nights on the cross, Philip has nothing coming up. “I’d quite like a break,” he says, with a smile.

But first he has to get up on that cross.

The York Minster Mystery Plays run from May 26 to June 30. Tickets: 01904 623568 or yorkminster.org/mysteryplays2016