The Mysteries

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The Mysteries is a version of the medieval English mystery plays first presented at London's National Theatre in 1977. The cycle of three plays tells the story of the Bible from the creation to the last judgement.

Background[edit]

It is based largely on the Wakefield cycle of plays (but incorporating some scenes from the York, Chester and Coventry canons) and adapted by poet Tony Harrison, working with the original cast, into three parts: Nativity, The Passion and Doomsday. Directed by Bill Bryden, it was first performed on Easter Saturday 1977 on the terrace of the National Theatre building on the South Bank, London. It then went into the repertoire in the Cottesloe Theatre (part of the South Bank complex) until 20 April 1985 when the Cottesloe went 'dark'.[1] Later in 1985 it transferred with a slightly different cast (Barrie Rutter playing Herod & Pontius Pilate, and Barry Foster as Lucifer/Judas/Satan)[2] to the Lyceum Theatre—then in use as a ballroom and so without seating.

Harrison's concept was to present the original stories as "plays-within-plays", using as his characters the naïve but pious craftsmen and guild members, to some extent modernised to represent the trades of today—God, for example, created the world with the help of a real fork-lift truck—[3]acting out the parts of the story that their mediaeval counterparts would have done. At the start of each performance actors dressed as tradesmen welcomed the audience.[4] The performance was a promenade one, with the audience mingling with the actors and making up the crowd at such scenes as the last judgement. The Evening Standard reported witnessing "An extraordinary experience... no wonder the end of it all saw an explosion of communal joyousness with everybody, actors, musicians, and audience alike, cheering and clapping and singing and dancing."

Cast[edit]

Many well known actors appeared in the productions, including Brenda Blethyn, Kenneth Cranham, Edna Doré, Lynn Farleigh, Brian Glover (as God), Karl Johnson (as Jesus), Richard Johnson, Mark McManus, Eve Matheson (as Eve), Jack Shepherd and Robert Stephens (as Herod).

Cast of the 1985 National Theatre production[edit]

The Nativity[5]

Role Actor
Abel Karl Johnson
Abraham Derek Newark
Adam / Isaac Stephen Petcher
Angel Gabriel Don Warrington
Cain Robert Oates
Eve Eve Matheson
God Brian Glover
Herod Robert Stephens
Herod’s Son Anthony Trent
Joseph Dave Hill
Lucifer Jack Shepherd
Mak Jim Carter
Mary Brenda Blethyn
Mary Dinah Stabb
Mrs Noah Edna Doré
Noah Howard Goorney
Percussion Michael Gregory
Shepherd Trevor Ray
Shepherd John Tamms
Wise Man Christopher Gilbert
Wise Man James Grant


The Passion[6]

Role Actor
Angel Gabriel Don Warrington
Annas Anthony Trent
Barabas Robert Oates
Blind Man Stephen Petcher
Cayphas Brian Glover
Disciple David Busby
Disciple Philip Langham
Jesus Karl Johnson
John Baptist Howard Goorney
Judas Jack Shepherd
Mary Magdalene Brenda Blethyn
Mary Magdalene Dinah Stabb
Mary Mother Edna Doré
Mary Salone Eve Matheson
Percussion Michael Gregory
Peter James Grant
Pontius Pilate Robert Stephens
Simon of Cyrene Christopher Gilbert
Soldier 1 Derek Newark
Soldier 2 Trevor Ray
Soldier 3 Dave Hill
Soldier 4 Jim Carter
Thomas John Tams


Doomsday[7]

Role Actor
Angel David Busby
Angel Philip Langham
Angel Gabriel Don Warrington
Annas Anthony Trent
Disciple Christopher Gilbert
Disciple Robert Oates
Eve Eve Matheson
God Brian Glover
John Stephen Petcher
Jesus Karl Johnson
Mary Magdalene Brenda Blethyn
Mary Magdalene Dinah Stabb
Mary Mother Edna Doré
Paul Howard Goorney
Peter James Grant
Percussion Michael Gregory
Pontius Pilate Robert Stephens
Satan Jack Shepherd
Soldier 1 Derek Newark
Soldier 2 Trevor Ray
Soldier 3 Dave Hill
Soldier 4 Jim Carter
Thomas John Tams

The actor and musician John Tams and his Home Service band provided the folk music accompaniment and a selection of tracks from it was published on CD.

The 1985 Cottesloe version was filmed for Channel 4 Television. A revival of the cycle, again directed by Bryden and featuring some of the original cast, was chosen by the National Theatre to mark the millennium celebration in 2000.[8]

Awards[edit]

The productions won Bill Bryden the "Best Director" title in both the Evening Standard Theatre Awards and the Olivier Awards for 1985, the year the three plays first appeared together in performance at the Lyceum Theatre. Other awards were: Sydney Edwards Award for Best Director; Olivier for Designer of the Year for William Dudley; City Limits award for Best Director, and for Best Designer; Plays and Players for Best Director and Best Designer.[5]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "£7m a year not unfair". The Times. 12 February 1985. p. 4.
  2. ^ "theatricalia the mysteries". theatricalia.com. 1985. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
  3. ^ Normington, Katie (October 2007). Modern mysteries: contemporary productions of medieval English cycle dramas. Melton, Suffolk, England: Boydell and Brewer. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-84384-128-9.
  4. ^ Dodsworth, Martin (9 January 1986). "A poet in the land of as if". The Guardian. London.
  5. ^ a b National Theatre (1985). "National Theatre Archive". National Theatre. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
  6. ^ National Theatre (1985). "National Theatre Archive". National Theatre. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
  7. ^ National Theatre (1985). "National Theatre Archives". National Theatre. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
  8. ^ Fay, Stephen (21 November 1999). "Theatre: The greatest story ever told". The Independent. Retrieved 11 July 2017.

Further reading and viewing[edit]