York on Flood alert…for second instalment of Radio Mystery Plays on Sunday morning

Director Juliet Forster, second from right, top row, in a Zoom rehearsal for The Flood, part of this summer’s York Radio Mystery Plays

TODAY is Corpus Christi Day, the day when the York Mystery Plays were first performed on wagons on the city streets from dawn until dusk in mediaeval times.

The Covid-19 pandemic scuppered any chance of a wagon production this summer, however, so instead the 2020 Mystery Plays are taking to the airwaves.

Instalment two of the four-part series will be aired on the Sunday Breakfast Show with Jonathan Cowap on BBC Radio York, partners to York Theatre Royal in this debut audio collaboration.

The York Radio Mystery Plays 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.

“The York Mystery Plays are part of the DNA of this city,” says director Juliet Forster, whose production began last weekend with Adam And Eve. “In lockdown, 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 writer 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.

Working remotely from home, a cast of 19 community and professional actors has recorded the 15-minute instalments that continue with The Flood Part 1 on June 14, The Flood Part 2 on June 21 and Moses And Pharaoh on June 28.

“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. 

“Making these radio plays in lockdown has probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever worked on,” says director Juliet Forster

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 choosing the cast, Juliet says: “I knew I wanted to involve a mixture of professional and non-professional actors from York, and straightaway I thought of casting Paul Stonehouse as God. He’d been in Two Planks And A Passion and had gone on to gain a professional contract for radio plays for the BBC.

A scene from Two Planks And A Passion, co-directed by Juliet Forster at York Theatre Royal in July 2011

“I knew Mark Holgate from directing him in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the first year of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York. He has a lovely Yorkshire voice and I knew he’d turned part of his house into a mini-sound studio to do voiceover work.

“I cast him as Noah, and the next role that came into my head was Rosy Rowley for Mrs Noah. She was so amusing in that role in the 2012 Mystery Plays and she brings such an instinctive intelligence to the text.

“I ended up with a cast where I’d worked with almost all of them before, thinking how they all might fit in.”

One exception was Taj Atwal, a recommendation by Tom Bird. “She grew up in York, played Rita in Rita, Sue And Bob Too at the Theatre Royal in November 2017 and was back self-isolating in the city, so she’s playing Eve in Adam And Eve and 3rd Daughter in The Flood instalments,” says Juliet.

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.

“It might depend on the day of the week you ask me, but I would say that making these radio plays in lockdown has probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever worked on,” says Juliet.

“Normally, when I’m in a rehearsal room, I like to guide, but not be too instructive, not telling them exactly what to do; it’s more flexible that way, whereas with this project, there was no chance to do that as we were all rehearsing in isolation, gathering on Zoom, rather than in a room.

“When it came to the recordings, done alone at home, on a number of occasions, I would send a note by email or phone them to say ‘could you re-do that line with more of this or more sense of that?’.

“On top of that, I had to get my head around each play, thinking about how they needed to be adapted for radio recordings and what did I want I want to get out of the project. All the actors have been so generous, knowing how difficult it would be to do a production in these circumstances, so it’s been a real challenge but also really exciting.”

So much so, Juliet would welcome the opportunity to do further Mystery Plays radio recordings. “But first we’ll see what the response is to the first series…” she says.

That series rolls on this weekend. If you missed Adam And Eve, would you believe it, in addition to the early-morning broadcasts on Jonathan Cowap’s Sunday show, the radio plays can be heard on BBC Sounds at bbc.co.uk/sounds.