Moving heaven and earth

Liam Evans producer of York Mystery Plays
Liam Evans producer of York Mystery Plays
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With 600 performers and 1,700 volunteers working round the clock, Nick Ahad goes behind the scenes of York’s Mystery Places and finds a production on an epic scale.

There are certain words that through constant misuse have lost their meaning.

“Awesome” and “genius” are two of them. However, given the work which is going on to stage the York Mystery Plays it might just be time to reclaim them both.

This really is a theatre production on a truly mind-blowing scale.

With 1,700 volunteers, two casts featuring over 300 people each, the signs were that this production was always going to be something special.

Yet, it is only when you step into York Museum Gardens, the venue that will play host to a temporary theatre where the production is taking place, that you can begin to understand the scale of what the city is about to witness.

“I can’t see how I will be involved in something as big as this again,” says Liam Evans-Ford, one of the producers pulling the show together. To be part of something as enormous as this is pretty incredible.”

It is a sentiment repeated over and over again, around the city. There appears to be few people in York who remain untouched by the Mystery Plays 2012.

The production opens on August 2 inside what is essentially going to be one of the biggest – if not the biggest – theatre space in Yorkshire.

The stage is halfway done when I visit, but even with only two of the three sides erected, the space looks – here it comes again – epic.

Ben Pugh, event producer, has previously been in charge of the Bradford Mela.

“A job like the York Mystery Plays, you build up to, this isn’t a job you do straight out of university,” says Pugh. “When I was producing the Bradford Mela, that was a square kilometre site which accommodated 200,000 people and that was big. This is different – it’s a lot more complicated. “We’re in an English Heritage protected space, that 10,000 people a day use in the summer. We had a 50 tonne crane here the other day lifting in the roof section – it’s a challenging space.”

As we walk to the marquee tent in the backstage area which is serving as a rehearsal space, our conversation is interrupted by a JCB carrying a piece of stage through the gardens. It passes through a gap in an ancient Roman wall. It transpires that Pugh has found a location out of town where the massive lorries carrying the huge sections of stage stop and transfer their load on to the back of a JCB which can then be brought onto the site. The logistics must be an absolute nightmare.

“Yes, it’s bonkers and I do have those days when I think, ‘what on earth are we doing?’,” says Pugh.

“What is wonderful is to see almost 2,000 volunteers across the city getting involved. It’s a really important part of city’s history and legacy and we have children as young as three and people in their 80s all working together. What projects like this do is make the city a smaller place, people now walk around and see people who they have worked together with to make this enormous, fantastic piece of work.”

The project began several years ago when York Theatre Royal artistic director Damian Cruden, and Riding Lights artistic director Paul Burbridge decided to revive the tradition of staging the York Mystery Plays, last seen at York Minster in 2000. The plays, a medieval tradition until they were supressed in 1569, were re-established in 1951, but haven’t been performed in the Museum Gardens since 1988.

The man charged with providing the script is acclaimed playwright Mike Kenny. A master at crafting plays for young audiences, Kenny took a big step five years ago when his script for The Railway Children was staged by York Theatre Royal at the National Railway Museum in the city. It was a huge success and transferred to London, where it played at Waterloo Station.

Even so, taking hundreds of years of theatrical York history and a story based the Bible and turning it into the biggest theatre piece York has seen in well over a decade is a big task. Kenny, as ever, is a picture of modesty.

“There are two things – first, I’ve written hardly any of it,” he says. “We’re using the 1951 version and I’ve been through lots of different versions and edited and curated them into a single script. The other thing is that we are absolutely doing something here that is of and for the place it’s in. The plays belong to the city of York, anyone can write them, so I’m just a small piece in helping these 1,700 people make this work.”

Kenny is discussing all this at York Theatre Royal, which is buzzing with young people. It is a walk across town from the theatre to a large Portakabin where the costumes are being made and it’s true – there is palpable excitement about the plays coming back to York.

It’s not just the posters all over the city, but the people who stop and chat about their involvement in the show.

Anna Gooch, the production’s costume designer, is overseeing what can only be described as a machine. A machine made up of 80 volunteers who have been hemming, stitching and altering costumes for the past six months.

“People have given up so much of their time, all the volunteers have worked really hard, given up so much of their time, made friends, learnt new skills,” she says. “It’s been something incredible to be part of.”

Genuinely, in fact, awesome.

York Mystery Plays, Museum Gardens, August 2 to 27. 01904 623568,