How to play a role made in Heaven (and Hell)

Ferdinand Kingsley (playing God and Jesus) and Graeme Hawley (as the Deveil) below.  Pictures by: Kippa Matthews
Ferdinand Kingsley (playing God and Jesus) and Graeme Hawley (as the Deveil) below. Pictures by: Kippa Matthews
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It’s set to be one of the biggest productions in the city of York’s history. Nick Ahad spoke to the two lead actors in the York Mystery Plays.

God and the Devil. As parts for actors go, they don’t really come much bigger.

Yet Graeme Hawley and Ferdinand Kingsley appear to be not only undaunted by playing the roles – and leading a cast of hundreds while doing so – but actually appear to be relaxed about the prospect.

“Clearly, the scale of the thing is enormous, but that’s really other people’s concern. For us, the skills as actors stay the same. We have to play the character and tell the story,” says Hawley. Which is odd because he’s playing the Devil.

Despite being best known as the murderer John Stape in Coronation Street and therefore not exactly an archetypal good guy, surely playing the character of the actual Devil is going to prove at least a little tricky? 
Hawley laughs at the suggestion. “I was having a conversation with Damian (Cruden, co-director of the York Mystery Plays) and said how, as an actor it doesn’t matter who you are playing, you have to look for something in the character to sympathise with. Even with this character.

“It is a bit frightening when you find yourself having sympathy for the Devil.”

The York Mystery Plays 2012 are taking place this month in what is the biggest temporary theatre in the county and are clearly going to be spectacular – the organisers have been claiming it as the biggest outdoor production in the country this year – this was presumably before the Olympics opening ceremony was revealed. The truth is, there is no need for hyperbole – this is clearly one of the biggest pieces of event theatre the county will see in 2012.

The York Museum Gardens are playing host to an enormous stage against the backdrop of St Mary’s Abbey, where the story will be played out. With 1,700 volunteers, it is a production that has taken over the city and left few corners untouched, with the volunteers offering their time to play in one of the two different casts of 300 people, or help make cosutmes, or props, or volunteer on stage management, or publicity and marketing – the list really does go on and on.

Co-produced by York Theatre Royal, Riding Lights Theatre Company and York Museums Trust, the show is a return to the 1950s version of the Mystery plays and has been written by one of the city’s favourite playwrights Mike Kenny. The production will also give audiences the chance to see the plays performed in the Museum Gardens for the first time since 1988.

The Mystery Plays, which have a 500-year history of being performed in the city, are being brought back to the city for the first time since 2000, when they were staged in York Minster as part of a Millennium year celebration.

It is all a heavy responsibility for Hawley and Ferdinand Kingsley, the production’s only two professional actors, leading the cast of hundreds.

Hawley says the pressure is nothing compared to the excitement of being cast in such an important role.

“What helps is that the script doesn’t start with him as the Devil in Hell, but as Lucifer. It helps so much that he starts out as a beautiful angel who doesn’t know what he has done wrong, other than having been given too much power,” says Hawley.

“At this point I know there is a huge amount of technical stuff to happen before we go on, but the thrill of acting, the thing that sends shivers down your spine is the reason we do it and to do it on a stage when you’re connecting with so many people in the audience is going to be something special.

“The really great thing is 
that we will be on stage 
with several hundred other 
actors who are going to 
be experiencing that same thing and a lot for the first time.”

The other professional actor in the cast, Ferdinand Kingsley, is on a similar journey to Hawley but has, if it’s possible, an even more exacting task ahead of him.

Even though he is from impressive acting stock – he is the son of Scarborough born Sir Ben Kingsley – it is an enormous responsibility for the 24-year-old to play the roles of both God and Jesus in the production.

“It is unusual, in the sense that you normally have different actors playing God and Jesus, but Mike has made this really interesting decision to have both played by the same actor,” says Kingsley.

“As an actor every job should be a little bit scary, but yes, something as big as this is probably more scary than most. Playing God is clearly a massive challenge, but I can’t play him as some old, bearded man. I have to play it as a character that I can relate to.

“For me the biggest thrill is being involved in this thing that is clearly a huge moment for Yorkshire.”

History of the York Mystery Plays

For hundreds of years the Mystery Plays were a tradition in York.

Civic official Roger Burton was the first to write down a list of the 51 Mystery Plays in 1415. It is known that the plays were being performed as a group in 1376. The plays continued for a short time after the Reformation but were finally suppressed in 1569. The tradition was revived in 1951 in the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. The plays continued on the same site in three and four year intervals until 1988. They were then performed in York Minster in 2000. Tickets and details on: