Video: Behind the scenes at York Minster’s Mystery Plays

  • The countdown is on as York Minster prepares to stage the 2016 Mystery Plays. Phil Penfold goes behind the scenes of the epic production.
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It could well be a specialist subject for a Mastermind contestant. You certainly have to have a special encyclopaedic knowledge to get to the heart of the York Mystery Plays. While there is no firm date as to when the spectacular pageant started, one early reference says they were performed to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi in 1376. From there they flourished until the Reformation when they were banned by the Tudor monarchy in 1569.

Scripts were hidden away and it wasn’t until a determined American, Lucy Toulmin-Smith, pestered the 4th Earl of Ashburnham to sort through his world-respected collection of medieval manuscripts that the ancient festival was brought back to life. There, among reams of priceless publications, was a set of documents outlining details of the Mystery Plays.

Community actors who will play Mary and Joseph, Ruby Barker, 18, and Mark Comer, 57.

Community actors who will play Mary and Joseph, Ruby Barker, 18, and Mark Comer, 57.

The rediscovery of the plays, and their publication by Toulmin-Smith in 1895, prompted keen interest in York, and in 1909 a selection of six of them – there are nearly 50 in all – was presented as a fundraiser for St Olave’s in the city. It took another 42 years for a full staging, as part of the Festival of Britain, the nation’s show of recovery after the Second World War.

In 1951, the plays were staged in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey and it was estimated that over 26,000 people came to see them, which made it the single most-watched performance event of the year. They were then staged in the same venue, at three and then four-yearly intervals, until 1992, when the production was moved to the Theatre Royal, and a young Robson Green featured as Jesus.

It was in 2000 that the then Dean of York Minster, the Very Rev Raymond Furnell, revealed that he was a keen devotee of the Mystery Plays and offered the space as a performance area. The result was a sell-out event in the Millennium year. “It was,” said one of the bowled-over audience, “far better than anything I saw at that wretched Dome in London.”

For 2000, it was Bradford-born Mike Poulton who supplied the script, and his (slightly revised) offering will be the backbone of this year’s event, once again in the mighty Minster.

Joanna Jefferies with some of the model sheep to  be used in the York Mystery Plays  inside York Minster.

Joanna Jefferies with some of the model sheep to be used in the York Mystery Plays inside York Minster.

“I’m not saying for one second that it is an easy commission,” he says, “no script ever is. But I was, and am, amazed at the directness, intent and purity of the medieval originals, which make the project such a pleasure and a thrill to work on.”

It is, says Mike – who prefers to write in a hideaway retreat in Norfolk and whose work in recent years has included adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies for the Royal Shakespeare Company – “full of richness”. That has to be something of an understatement, since the plays begin with the Creation, and end with Judgement Day, with the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, the flight into Egypt, the Last Supper and the birth and trial of Jesus and much else besides, in between.

This year’s director is the award-laden Phillip Breen, another man with a huge reputation with the RSC. The designer is Max Jones, whose work has been much admired at Shakespeare’s Globe, the RSC and Theatre Clwyd Theatre Cymru, and the musical director is Dr Richard Shephard, a visiting fellow in the department of music at York University. And this year’s Christ? Step forward Philip McGinley, fresh from the National Theatre, and probably best known to TV audiences as Anguy in the impossibly popular Game of Thrones and as Tom Kerrigan in Coronation Street.

Traditionally, each of York’s many guilds were responsible for their own sections of the overall experience. The shipwrights, for example, were an obvious choice for the scene of the building of the Ark. The goldsmiths were the body devoted to the arrival of the Three Kings, and the bakers provided the Last Supper. Obvious choices and all united in one glorious quest – to put the full Biblical story in front of an audience.

And, while times and job descriptions may have changed the mission for all involved is precisely the same – to tell “the Greatest Story Ever Told” to the people of York and to its thousands of visitors.

Pulling all this together needs someone rather special, so the producer of the 2016 York Mystery Plays is Nicola Corp, a much-respected talent who has worked in national media, in TV and on radio, where she has built up a fine reputation for staging major events. When audiences see the plays, they will get the impression that they are seamless and virtually effortless. But Nicola – who lives in Upper Wharfedale – knows how complicated everything is.

She and her team have to do everything from auditioning the actors, to making sure that there are enough portable loos for the audiences. They have to establish and fine-tune a whole army of backstage workers and operatives. They also have to make sure that not only does Max Jones’s setting work and fit inside the Minster, but that everyday services and those attending them, as well as the thousands of Minster visitors, can work in, with and around it.

“It’s a combination of goodwill and communication,” says Nicola from her office in Church House on Ousegate. “It is event production at its most complex. But in this case we do have one huge bonus. We are inside the Minster – for only the second time in Mystery Play history – and that means obviously that we are in a covered space. We don’t have to worry about the weather.

“There are about 160 or so in the cast, and they are complemented and backed up by another 240 who do everything else other than act. They all come from so many different walks of life. Teachers, vicars, priests, a psychiatrist, carers, students, doctors, butchers, bakers, and I dare say that we have a candlemaker in there somewhere as well. They are united by their complete commitment to the project, and the first thing that we had to tell them when everything got going in the middle of last year was that they had to be with it 100 per cent. They don’t have to come to every rehearsal, because no-one is in every scene. But they have to be there when they are requested, and they all have to be present, every night, from May 26 to June 30. When you have a family life, and other things that you might want to do, that’s a big ask. We had the choice, when we first started of having two casts, A and B, and after a long discussion, we decided to go for having just one. Everyone now agrees that that has paid off.

“In addition to Phillip, who is marvellous, there are four assistant community directors. It is a brilliant opportunity for anyone interested in the stage in any way to use this event as their calling card.”

Nicola adds: “There will be 41 performances in all, and the cast will perform in what will be a 1,000-seater auditorium, where there is not one bad sight-line. Doing the maths, that’s an audience of 41,000 people if all the seats are sold, and every indication is that they will be.”

There are some performances, which are being called them learning matinees, which will finish with a talk about the production and a Q&A session.

“Those audiences are coming from all over the city, from all over Yorkshire, and the UK, They are coming, so bookings tell us, from Europe, the Far East, from the USA and Canada. And for a reason that we don’t know yet, there’s been an extra big interest from Switzerland!” adds Nicola.

And will it be a huge anti-climax at the end of June? “No”, she says. “I hope that it will be a wonderful sense of achievement, a sense of ‘job well done’. I’ve got a contract which takes me through for a few more months, so that I can manage the ‘tidying up’ that comes along after the performances. But, come July 1, I will be able to get home at a regular time, to see my husband Tony. Poor man, I think that he’s forgotten that I’m married to him.”

The York Mystery Plays, York Minster, May 26 to June 30. 01904 623568,