Fiona Lindsay discusses the value of telling stories.
I'm on the train to York to meet the team behind the 2016 presentation of the Mystery Plays. This is a mammoth project and a once-in-a-generation experience for audience and performers alike. There are over 1,000 people involved in the piece which will take place in the architecturally impressive York Minster throughout May and June - my visit is to discuss the programme I'm making for the radio about it all. Of the 1,000 strong team, 200 are actors.
However it's not a luvvie in, as out of those there is only one person who can be described as a professional performer (i.e. he makes a living from it). The others, drawn from the nooks and crannies of the city, are faithful to the medieval origins of the plays and represent all and sundry. These ancient texts are plays for the people by the people and the blend of age, culture, accent, shape and form, will infuse the epic storytelling with the tapestry of colour required to enable the language of each moment to take on scale and have impact. All involved are artists by the mere fact that there are involved in the process of creating something together. When they walk into the rehearsal room they shed the costume of their own lives, so becoming Adam, Eve, Noah, Jesus, Lucifer et al.
The community aspect of the cycle of plays is what sets them apart. This is not amateur dramatics. During the dark ages from whence the tradition emerged, these tales were told as a means of expressing the teachings of God and brought instruction, comfort and entertainment. There is nothing sanctimonious about them though. The 2016 version of the York Cycle has been translated/adapted by Mike Poulton and is bawdy, funny and very down to earth. All bar one of the sections are anonymous. The crucifixion tale is said to have been written by someone called the York Realist and it's said that he was an influence on Shakespeare.
In fact, reading through the plays, there is much that could have influenced the Bard and it’s known that the cycle of plays performed by mummers would have travelled through Stratford upon Avon whilst WS was there. But let’s get back to the people. No one involved is doing this as a stepping stone to fame. Their participation is driven by a strong a desire to link to the past to tell a story of the present. Stories can take us to places we can only dream about, introduce to people we will never meet in reality and demonstrate how small we are in the grand scheme of things. It's good to be reminded of this from time to time.
Let there be light.