York Mystery Plays 2000 - Photo: Kippa Matthews

Recent York Mystery Plays Productions

2014 – Waggon Plays

The Guilds have presented wagon plays every four years since 1998. Some things have changed while others have remained constant. Dedication and hard work, frustration and fun, are behind every production but change keeps the tradition vibrant.

The Guild of Building continued to use the pop-up set assembled for their 1998 Creation play but those watching the wagons in 2014 saw innovation as well as familiar favourites. As always, the Company of Merchant Adventurers was responsible for the grand finale, the Last Judgement. This play has been performed in different styles by different performance groups since 1998, originally York Settlement Community Players and in 2014 by Pocklington School and their guests, Ravens Morris from Shiptonthorpe.

A number of schools, church communities and community theatre groups helped to make the wagons a success. In 2014, two new groups took party whose origins were in previous productions: the HIDden Theatre group founded by members of the Lords of Misrule following the 2010 Wagon Play production and York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, founded after the Museum Garden Mysteries of 2012.

As in 2010, two separate plays from the medieval script were amalgamated- the Crucifixion and the Death of Christ. This change, as well as changes in performance groups and set design, was completely in line with medieval practice as detailed in the York civic records.

Perhaps the most exciting change in 2014 was the addition of the Chorus, scripted by Ged Cooper, a local scriptwriter and member of York Settlement Community Players and the Supporters Trust. The medieval Chester Mystery Plays and the N.Town collection both feature an “expositor” whose functions include calling for attention from the audience, explaining the significance of what they have just seen, looking forwards and backwards in the narrative, and occasionally detailing biblical material that has been omitted. Apart from some experiments in the 1980 and 1984 Museum Garden productions, York has had no such figure. The Chorus in 2014 added voices that mediated sensitively between the audience and the play , sometimes echoing the actors or taking the roles of actors who did not appear in the performance itself, sometimes reminding the audience of the underlying religious message, sometimes standing outside the play like Shakespeare’s Prologues and Epilogues.

It is this combination of old and new that has enriched the different wagon productions over the years, building on tradition, experience and expertise while, at the same time, involving new ideas, participants and forums. In 2014 the relationship between old and new continued and flourished.

Dr Margaret Rogerson, Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Sydney
For York Festival Trust

2012 – St. Mary’s Abbey, Museum Gardens

Whilst the Guilds had performed in front of the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey on their waggons more recently, this was to be the first large scale, fixed staged production there since 1988 – and York Mystery Plays 2012 didn’t disappoint.

In a 1,400 seat purpose built open air theatre, York Mystery Plays 2012 was presented as one piece by a team made up from York Theatre Royal, Riding Lights Theatre Company, York Museums Trust and the City of York Council.

With the combined talents of over 1,500 volunteers, the production was considered a huge success – although its 1940/50s setting did raise a few eyebrows. The community cast were led by professional actors Ferdinand Kingsley (God/Jesus) and Graeme Hawley (Satan) and were seen by a total audience of over 32,000. The production was also streamed on the internet as part of the BBC’s The Space. For more information visit yorkmysteryplays2012.com.

2010 – Waggon Plays

The Guild’s waggon plays have continued the tradition of the York Mystery Plays and have ensured their place in modern day York. In 2010, 12 waggons took to the Plays to the community, presenting their own segment of the biblical story in locations such as the Museum Gardens and Deans Park. As always this was a huge undertaking and included volunteers from across the city joining forces with the Guilds and their creative team.

To coincide with the production, York Festival Trust organised the return to the city of the only surviving copy of the original Plays which they displayed as part of an exhibition, The Art of the Mystery Plays, at the City Art Gallery.

A 15-page colour souvenir booklet describing the pageant waggons’ route through the city streets with illustrations from the exhibition was also produced alongside a DVD of the production. More details at yorkmysteryplays.co.uk.

2000 – Millennium In The Minster

The turn of a new Millennium demanded an epic new staging of the York Mystery Plays which had been more recently seen in their fixed stage format at York Theatre Royal. York Minster, the largest Gothic Cathedral north of the Alps, certainly fitted the bill and, with Dean Ray Furnell’s support and drive, this truly remarkable and memorable production directed by Gregory Doran was seen by over 28,000 people.

Professional actor Ray Stevenson took the part of Christ and was joined by a company made up from local people, many of whom have long standing associations with York Mystery Plays and have continued to do so since.

Whilst some may feel the York Mystery Plays belong outside, with St Mary’s Abbey a popular venue, it is hard to argue against the splendour and significance of York Minster and it will surely be a venue for the York Mystery Plays again.