Wakefield Mysteries

Reviewer's Rating

Don’t miss this rare promenade performance of the Wakefield Mystery plays, known as the Townley cycle! Centuries old, famed in its day for satire and psychological realism, this modern adaptation is fresh and authentic and ambitious and challenging – all the things that modern theatre should be.

Wakefield cathedral hosts magnificently. We foregather in the cafe and are banded green or pink depending on which circuit we will follow and are encouraged to interact, to challenge and engage.

A bunch of angry striking miners await us in the nave with a threatening series of clicks whistles and stamps. The band (headed by excellent Moony Wainwright) and video news clips locate us in the 80s. When God (Walsh) bursts from the picket line in donkey jacket and hard hat, we are introduced to a modern mystery pageant that builds from a defining moment in recent history (especially from a northern perspective) to make complete sense in 2016 and this moment in our time: post-Brexit, post–politically-expedient, confused Britain.

Writer Nick Lane honours his medieval legacy – rhyme, metre, and comic set-pieces abound -but he pulls no contemporary punches. His authentic Wakefield voices belong to skateboarders, junkies, ex-miners and Goths. Adam (Appleyard) and Eve (Saville) ‘score’ the apple. Cain (Smith) commits the original knife crime that is our contemporary urban commonplace, and the forefathers rap their message. The prophets perform in a seedy nightclub, but Ezekiel’s passion from ‘Sybil the Sage’(Hainsworth-Staples) is impossible to ignore.

Updating a classic can be a risky business, but with writing of this quality, the courage of Dean Greener and the cathedral in supporting this project, and an assured creative team; Wakefield has been blessed with genuine synergy to explore what God and mystery means today in a largely secular and fragmented world.

If anyone could convert you, it would be Walsh’s God. His mellifluous flattened vowels and dignified compassion guide us through the old testament, the birth of Christ and his Passion. Conflicted, challenged, and understanding, ‘…there’s only so much you can do’. His Lucifer (Peebles) is fantastically costumed but pales beside his sloppy t-shirt announcing ‘things can only get better’ intentionally loaded with political association.

The modern technology of iPhone and Facebook help articulate, but it is the powerful dramatic performances that tell this tale. Mary’s bravery (Derbyshire). Christ’s vulnerability and frustrations (Walker). Peter (Hainsworth-Staples) and Judas (Colley) deliver compelling portraits of human nature.

Occasionally mystery predominates and angels (Appleyard, Parkin) arrive to dazzle and enchant. It is a stroke of genius to perform the annunciation without words. Beautiful movement direction throughout by Lucy Cullingford. The decision to perform promenade involves and implicates the audience directly. Never have I felt so stained by the crime of Calgary as when Jesus stumbles under the weight of the cross and we none of us go to help him, and to add to the poignancy: central Wakefield continues its Friday night revels in the background.

This is a political interpretation and not everyone will agree with the politicisation of personal faith, but Nick Lane is right to have grasped that nettle with both hands, making space for Lucifer and God to remind us that whatever the slick grey-suited politicians claim, the fundamental questions of right and wrong, and decisions of life or death cannot be reduced to slogans and straplines.

Ambitious direction from Loretto respects the building and its complexity and humanity, despite the odd profanity. When the ensemble mob brays for blood we recognise too much of what we have seen and felt in Britain in 2016 as we are all …

Laid equally low
By new grey men in expensive ties
Who say they are your brother.
Who’ve gambled on you not getting wise.
Who point you at each other
And say:
He’s your problem.
She is.
Not us. Don’t look at us.

Perhaps we could all do with a bit more communal mystery.