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The Durham Mysteries were last performed in 2010. Ten modern plays based on the Medieval Mystery Plays.

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The Durham Mysteries

Read the British Theatre Guide Review

The Durham Mysteries is a modern interpretation of the traditional mystery cycles. At one time, Durham did have its own cycle. Sadly, it has been lost with only a fragment of the prologue extant. Three years ago, Kate James, Creative Planner for the Festival Durham programme, put forwards the idea of creating a modern version. Simon Stallworthy, Director of the city’s Gala Theatre, was brought in as Creative Director for the project.

The first step was to invite writers to submit ideas. A general invitation was sent out, asking ‘Which mystery plays would you choose? How would you write it?’ Writers both local and from throughout the country submitted ideas and a selection was made.

The resulting cycle is made up of ten very different performances (plus two animations). These are in a wide range of performance styles, created by eleven different individual writers/creators as well as a group. The performers range from young children through teenagers to amateur and professional actors. Some of the plays are performed by existing groups within the county. While other are made up from a variety of community and/or school or college groups.

Heaven’s Got Talent (The Fall of Lucifer)

The Durham Mysteries cycle opens in the Gala Theatre with The Fall of Lucifer (or Heaven’s Got Talent). After which the audience moves to the Cathedral for a musical re-telling of the Fall of Man, then on to the riverside at The Sands. It is here that a stage just like those used for outdoor rock concerts has been erected for the remaining eight plays. The evening starts at 5.30pm and ends a little after 10.30pm.

Heaven’s Got Talent, as the title suggests, uses the format of a reality TV show. This is organised by the angels when God is away, in which two angels compete to be acclaimed as the most talented performers. Lucifer wins, at least until God returns and demands that his new creation, Mankind, be part of the show. Writer Gavin Williams gives his cast, thirteen students from Gilesgate Sixth Form College, plenty of opportunity to show off their musical and acting talents. And even involves a bit of audience participation. Actually, we rather like Lucifer, and God doesn’t come out of it terribly well.

The Fall of Creation

At the Cathedral, The Fall of Creation is a kind of staged oratorio and features a huge number of singers from a wide range of choral groups and schools. The libretto is performed by Em Whitfield Brooks, with music by Tim Brooks and includes choristers from the Cathedral itself. Massive puppets represent God and Satan. The Serpent is a seemingly endless silver snake made up of children from Chester-le-Street Junior School. David Pisaro as Lucifer looks remarkably like his namesake in Jerry Springer the Opera!

God’s Day Off

Poet Ian McMillan writes God’s Day Off, the first play at The Sands. Presented in his usual quirky and wryly amusing style, it features much rhyming verse (and there is some discussion about that!). This play follows God’s first visit to his new creation, the earth, and specifically the North East. Rather disappointed with what he sees, God is told in no uncertain terms that he can’t criticise his creation. Especially if he simply creates and then leaves what he created to get on with it!

Cain and Abel

Mother and son team Ellen and Fred Phethean’s Cain and Abel uses rap and street dance to tell the story. It follows the bibical story closely but with various performers taking over the roles of Cain and Abel. In the true spirit of the breakdance ‘jam’ which gives every participant the opportunity to show their skills. God, up high on a balcony, is a rapper and, it has to be said, not particularly nice to know.

Noah and the Fludd

God in David Almond’s Noah and the Fludd isn’t particularly nice to know either. At least our County Durham Noah gets the warning to build “a narc”. He’s even allowed to take his sons and their wives with him, as well as two of all the animals. There’s a lot of landmark spotting as they float away. They mention seeing the head of the Angel of the North, the top of Penshaw Monument. And it’s not a dove they release to determine if the flood is subsiding but a spuggy (the North East word for a sparrow). This is a real local community piece: all of the performers, from school kids to adults, are from the Esh Winning area.

Abraham and Isaac

Abraham and Isaac, the play which leads us to the interval, is written by Toby Hulse. It uses the words of young children aged between 3 and 7 from Durham. The performers are members of The Turret, a youth theatre based in Barnard Castle. In the play there is, touchingly, a big emphasis on the idea that “Daddies make sacrifices. That’s what they do.” It’s a very unusual approach and brings with it the kind of childish innocence which permeates many of the original Mystery plays.

By this time it was getting very cold – a May evening in Durham could never be described as summery! And so the interval provided a welcome opportunity to walk around and warm up a bit before we moved into the New Testament section of the Durham Mysteries.

The Nativity

The second half started, appropriately enough, with The Nativity. It was told from the point of view of Joseph and created by TIN Arts, an arts development company. Set in a bar with a DJ and music, it was performed by young people. These included members of the Flex Dance Company, a learning disabled group. It brilliantly uses song, dance and drama to explore the story of what happens when the people in the bar out Joseph on the spot. Furthermore they laugh at the idea that Mary claims that God is the father and that she and Joseph had not had sex. And they demand how does he know she’s not having him on?

The Miracle of Lazarus

The next play is The Miracle of Lazarus, written by Judy Upton and performed by a group of professional actors. This could be set on a street anywhere in the NE. In an actual ambulance, flashing blue lights and all, Lazarus has died in spite of the efforts of the paramedics. His sisters Mary and Martha are distraught and agonised that Jesus had not come, in spite of their telling him Lazarus was very ill. A policemen holds back the crowds as “You’ve got to take proper precautions when there’s a faith angle”. Then Jesus arrives. Lazarus is raised from the dead. Sticking close to the original story in spirit, its ending prepares us for the next play, The Crucifixion.

The Crucifixion

This is a musical telling of the story by Timothy Craig Harrison and is performed by members of the Gala Theatre Stage School. Making effective use of the complex lighting rig, the piece has resonances of Jesus Chris Superstar. It features a Gregorian Chant with a little of T S Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi thrown in good measure.

The Harrowing of Hell

The final play is The Harrowing of Hell by Chris Hannan with music by Simon Hanson and performed by students on the BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts at New College, Durham. Here Hell is life on the streets among alcoholics and addicts of all kinds and this is where Adam and Eve have been for thousands of years. Can they be reconciled and risk the journey out of Hell to what is for them the unknown?

Reflection on the Mystery Plays

It’s interesting that there is a preponderance of Old Testament stories told in this cycle. The Old Testament certainly offers more dramatic possibilities than the New. But it also means that God gets a pretty poor press. Demanding, quick to insist on his right to be worshipped, easy to anger, this is not the God of love and forgiveness of the Christian message. Even in the four NT plays there is an undercurrent – Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?

But perhaps this is to be expected. The original Mystery Cycles were the Church’s way of telling the Bible stories to an illiterate people. They told many more stories than we see here. In The Durham Mysteries we are seeing an attempt by different authors to look at the stories from a modern perspective. There is much comedy in God’s Day Off and Noah and the Fludd. However, the underlying message is the same; God is quick to anger and punish.

Reviews and Thoughts on the Durham Mysteries

It is also really not possible to review this production (these productions?) in the normal way. With so many different performance styles and a vast range of performing experience from primary school children through street dancers to professional actors, there is no one standard that can be applied to all. Well, except to answer the questions, do the plays succeed in what they set out to do?

The answer is yes, they do. One could pick faults, of course. However, if the aim of the Durham Mysteries project is to give a modern reaction to a set of stories which are part of the bedrock of our civilisation, and to present that reaction (as the Mystery Plyas did in their time) through what nowadays we are pleased to call community groups, then this is a success. Indeed, it is an impressive achievement. This is true of the writers, the performers, the directors (professionals), the organisers and indeed the funders. In these straitened times, they especially deserve a huge amount of credit for having the courage to invest in such a project. It is a massive project and it all came together on the day to give the very large audience a thoroughly enjoyable five and a half hours. And it didn’t rain!