YORK Theatre Royal and BBC Radio York are collaborating to bring the York Mystery Plays to life on the airwaves next month.
Four instalments will be presented as audio versions on the Sunday Breakfast Show with Jonathan Cowap on successive weekends from June 7, the Sunday before Corpus Christi Day on June 11: the day since mediaeval times when the plays were performed on wagons on the city streets from dawn until dusk.
Working remotely from home, a cast of 19 community and professional actors has recorded the 15-minute instalments, Adam And Eve, The Flood Part 1, The Flood Part 2 and Moses And Pharaoh, under the direction of Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster.
“The York Mystery Plays are part of the DNA of this city,” she says. “The longevity of these potent plays clearly demonstrates how vital the collective act of storytelling is, and how much we need to explore and reflect together on our experiences and understanding of the world.
“We’re determined to keep doing this in spite of the lockdown. So, these plays seem exactly the right choice to pick up, find a new way to create, communicate afresh and encourage one another.”
Juliet, incidentally, previously co-directed Anthony Minghella’s Two Planks And A Passion at the Theatre Royal in July 2011, a play set around a performance of the York Mystery Plays on Corpus Christi Day in midsummer 1392.
This time, she and husband Kelvin Goodspeed have adapted Mystery Play texts for the radio series, drawing on material dating back to the 1300s first resurrected after a long, long hiatus for the Festival of Britain in 1951.
The York Radio Mystery Plays now form part of York Theatre Royal’s Collective Acts, a programme of “creative community engagement” set up in response to the St Leonard’s Place building being closed under the Covid-19 strictures.
“When we went into lockdown, Tom [Bird, the Theatre Royal’s executive director] kept saying we ought to try to do something with the Mystery Plays, and I suggested that we should do radio plays,” recalls Juliet.
“But I’d never done a radio broadcast, so I contacted Radio York and said ‘let’s do this together’.”
Under the partnership that ensued, the Theatre Royal has chosen the texts, sourced the scripts, recruited the actors and provided the music, while BBC Radio York sound engineer Martin Grant has mixed the recordings, splicing them together into finished crafted instalments.
Ed Beesley has provided composition, sound design and foley artist effects. Madeleine Hudson, musical director of the York Theatre Royal Choir, has given the choir and cast songs to perform.
In choosing the plays, Juliet says: “The ones that make for the most fun are the ones around Noah’s flood, but they are also about a family in isolation for 40 days, maybe falling out with each other, so there are parallels with what’s happening now.
“Then there’s the positive ending, which would be good, and that sense of starting again, so it was the perfect choice.”
The Flood, Parts 1 and 2 were picked initially for a spring pilot show, but then the BBC decided to build a series around the Corpus Christi Day tradition in June, and so two more plays were added: Adam And Eve and Moses And Pharaoh.
“I’d already started working on Adam And Eve and thought about doing a Nativity play, but in our conversations with Radio York, they then talked about wanting to keep the series going, with the possibility of four Nativity plays at Christmas and four for Easter based around the Crucifixion,” says Juliet.
“So I thought, ‘I’ll stick with Old Testament stories’, and I’d done the Moses and Pharaoh story for The Missing Mysteries with the York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre in 2012.
“It’s a play about a desire for freedom to get out, which again relates to now: that need to breathe, to get to the other side, but there’s also that moment where they dare not go out, where they stay behind closed doors, so that really is like now. That feeling of living in fear.”
As for Adam And Eve, again the Genesis story is a resonant one. “They were living in this paradise but then lost it, facing hardship and their own mortality, which we’re all facing now,” says Juliet.
“That sense of not knowing paradise is what you have until it’s gone; also that role of being guardians but always wanting that little bit more, when instead we need to be more environmentally friendly.”
In keeping with Covid-19 social-distancing rules, the production required the actors to record their lines on a smart phone from home, having done collective rehearsals for each play over the Zoom conference call app.
Among the cast are Rory Mulvihill and Rosy Rowley, Rory reprising his role as Satan from the York Millennium Mystery Plays in York Minster in 2000, this time in Adam And Eve; Rosy returning to Mrs Noah in The Flood, a role she first played in the 2012 York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens.
Rory experimented with recording in his shower as his sound booth in his Naburn home. “I Blu-Tacked my script on the wall and had to use torchlight because I couldn’t have the extractor fan on, but when Juliet heard the recordings, she said it was a tinny noise, so she rejected them!
“I had to do them at my desk in the end, with Julia saying it didn’t matter if there was birdsong!”
“Choosing the right time and location for the recordings was a challenge,” says Rosy. “Living in a busy street and having teenagers in my house, I ended up rehearsing in the garden shed and having to record at two in the morning in my bedroom in the attic.
“It was lonely having to record on your own with no voice to respond to, so you had to imagine how someone would have said a line.”
Hear the results from June 7. Note that in addition to the broadcasts on Jonathan Cowap’s Sunday show, the radio plays can be heard on BBC Sounds at bbc.co.uk/sounds.
Copyright of The Press, York