Meet Noah as York Mystery Plays roll out waggons for return to city-centre streets

When it rains, it pours: Maurice Crichton’s Noah looks to the sky in rehearsal for York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust’s production of The Building Of The Ark and The Flood. Picture: John Saunders

EIGHT plays from the York Cycle of Mystery Plays will be wheeled around York city centre on waggons by the Guilds of York and York Festival Trust on Saturday and June 26.

Under the direction of Tom Straszewski, from 11am each weekend, the Plays will process from College Green (free admission) to St Sampson’s Square (free), St Helen’s Square (free) and King’s Manor (ticketed).

In addition, five of the plays will be staged in ticketed Midsummer midweek performances in Shambles Market on Wednesday and Thursday at 7.30pm.

Taking part in all of the performances will be a familiar bearded face on the York stage, Maurice Crichton, playing Noah in Paul Toy’s staging of The Building Of The Ark and The Flood for the Company of Cordwainers and York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust.

Maurice is steeped in Mystery history. “I did the Settlement Players’ waggon play in 2010, as Pontius Pilate; Riding Lights and York Theatre Royal’s Two Planks And A Passion in 2011; Pilate in the 2012 Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens; Herod in York Minster in 2016, and Soldier 1 in The Crucifixion for the Company of Butchers and St Chad’s Church in 2018,” he says.

“But I’ve never done a Supporters Trust play, so that’s a first, and I’ve never done Noah before. It’s a delightful part, and we’ve tried to go for the humour, although there’s not so much humour in ‘The Ark’, but as soon as Paul [Toy] mashed the two plays together, that helped with the tone.”

Director Paul Toy, centre, bearded, in the thick of a rehearsal for The Building Of The Ark and The Flood

What draws Maurice back to the York Mystery Plays time after time? “First of all, it connects me to the city where I live,” he says. “It’s the one piece of world theatre that the city is really connected to, so I enjoy that aspect, and the more I’ve done the plays, the more I’ve looked into the history.

“It’s similar to Shakespeare, where you have the script but you have no idea how it was done when it was first performed. You’re like a detective, and the more you look into the plays, the more the options open up as you de-code the text, and that’s exciting.

“That’s what differentiates the Mystery Plays from plays of our time, where the writer is still around to help you to prepare. For a role like Noah, you have to think, how do I ‘see’ this line; what actions will go with that? It’s a case of, the more you take these words into your head, the more you think about what cadence is needed, what freedom have I got; what’s the rhythm; what’s the meaning?”

Maurice makes a further comparison with Shakespeare’s texts. “Sometimes you feel the audience isn’t going to follow this because the language is dated,” he says. “I’ve had discussions with Paul where I’ve said, I think the original version works better for its musicality, rather than the new adaptation, but elsewhere I’ve said, can I modernise a line, so it cuts both ways.”

Performing on bustling city-centre streets makes particular demands on actors. “The first thing to say is the plays are not being done where they should be, in the tight streets, rather than the open squares, but that’s for practical reasons,” points out Maurice.

“Now, there’s no reverb off the walls to help you, much as College Green is a beautiful setting, but the plays used to be done in streets like Stonegate, as old pictures show.

“I remember in 2010 I was hoarse by the end of the day after the four performances,” says Maurice Crichton. “I needed someone to say ‘that’s loud enough’!”

“You also have to imagine how the streets of York used to be; they’ve all become wider, apart from Shambles, to deal with traffic.

“The danger is that if you’re worried about your audibility, you’re going to punish your vocal cords because you’re trying to be too loud. I remember in 2010 I was hoarse by the end of the day after the four performances. I needed someone to say ‘that’s loud enough’.”

Maurice continues: “Having not been to drama school, I didn’t know what to do in that situation, but what I’ve learned is you really need to keep your face pointed forwards towards the audience at all times when you have something to say, using your arms for gestures.

“It doesn’t help to look at your partner on stage. But when they’re talking, you do look at them; you’re fully responsive in your expressions, turning to face them to show very positively you’re engaging with them through your eyes.

“It’s a different discipline to acting on a stage indoors, because you wouldn’t perform that way in natural speech. Indoors, these days you’re mainly trying to achieve naturalism, but performing on the streets requires the opposite of the norm. Outdoors, it looks like you’re in a Victorian melodrama.”

Given the “noises off” that confront street theatre, with shoppers, stags and hens and open-air cafe tables to negotiate, Maurice says: “The reality is, you’ll be able to count on one hand the number of actors you can hear clearly 90 per cent of the time.

“In St Helen’s Square, for example, there’s a massive amount of distractions, as people move from one shopping street to another, and the challenge is to be so focused and confident in your lines that you can keep going, stopping to do a funny aside, if necessary, but always keeping your face head on to the crowd, of course!”

If the cap fits: Mick Liversidge will play Satan in the Mysteries In The Market on Wednesday and Thursday

Meanwhile, Easingwold actor Mick Liversidge will play Satan in the midsummer Mysteries In The Market performances in Shambles Market on Wednesday and Thursday evening, following in the crepuscular footsteps of James Swanton’s Lucifer in The Mysteries After Dark in September 2018.

“As a huge fan of outdoor theatre, I was absolutely delighted to be offered this role,” says Mick, who will act as narrator, steering the 100-strong audience and linking each of the five plays to be presented.

“I’ve performed in many local plays both in York and around Yorkshire, so it’s a pleasure to be involved in such a great community event. I’m looking forward to guiding the audience and seeing their reactions as the plays unfold.”

Mick has appeared in everything from York productions of Wind In The Willows, Calendar Girls The Musical and A Christmas Carol to Shakespeare, short films, Coronation Street, Channels 4’s It’s A Sin, The Queen And I on Netflix, the 2019 film version of Downton Abbey and this year’s Bengali-language adventure thriller Swastik Sanket.

Full details of the 2022 York Mystery Plays can be found at yorkmysteryplays.co.uk, including bookings for the ticketed performances at King’s Manor and Shambles Market.

Copyright of The Press, York

The Crucifixion scene in The Mysteries After Dark at Shambles Market in September 2018

What will the eight plays be?

* Creation To The Fifth Day, York Guild of Building, directed by Janice Newton

* The Fall Of Man, Gild of Freemen and Vale of York Academy, directed by Bex Nicholson

* The Building Of The Ark and The Flood, Company of Cordwainers and York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, directed by Paul Toy

* The Three Kings and Herod, St Luke’s Church, directed by Mike Tyler

* The Last Supper, Company of Merchant Taylors and Lords of Misrule, directed by Dr Emily Hansen

* The Crucifixion and Death Of Christ, Company of Butchers and Riding Lights Acting Up!, directed by Kelvin Goodspeed and Jared More

* The Appearance Of Jesus To Mary Magdalene, Guild of Media Arts and Guild of Scriveners, directed by Jess Murray

* The Last Judgement, Company of Merchant Adventurers, directed by Alan and Diane Heaven

2022 York Mystery Plays director Tom Straszewski, pictured with Jess Murray, director of The Appearance Of Jesus To Mary Magdalene for the Guild of Media Arts and Guild of Scriveners

2022 York Mystery Plays director Tom Straszewski has confirmed the plays for Mysteries In The Market:

June 22, 7.30pm: Fall Of Adam and Eve; The Flood; The Last Supper; The Crucifixion and The Last Judgement.

June 23, 7.30pm: Creation To The Fifth Day; The Flood; The Last Supper; The Crucifixion and The Last Judgement.

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