The Northern poet and playwright Tony Harrison is a perfect match with the English mystery plays, specimens of a vigorous, vernacular art form popular from the medieval era through to the time of Shakespeare. Most associated with York, Chester and Wakefield, the cycles dramatised Biblical themes from creation to judgment for an unlettered audience. Harrison’s pell-mell version, celebrating 400 years of the King James Bible, begins with God (David Hargreaves) as a gruff, white-haired Yorkshireman calling the angelic hosts into being from his armchair on the balcony. Lucifer (Paul Hunter) promptly defies him and descends to smoky hell through the trap.
Creation is swiftly organised with a lantern and a cart laden with boxes that contain the sea (blue cloth) and the planets (tennis balls). Adam and Eve are created, and fall. Even in three hours, it’s amazing what’s left out. No Samson, no Joseph, no Salome, no David and Goliath. Fast-forward to the Nativity. Harrison’s ingenious verse switches between earthy humour and stark profundity, although a medieval conflation of the worshipping shepherds with a contemporary tale of sheep-rustling doesn’t work as well in the 21st century as it must have done in Tudor times.
The Massacre of the Innocents is a grisly set piece with Herod (Hunter again) enthroned on a heap of child corpses. Post-Godspell, Jesuses are usually lithe and hippie-like and this one is no exception (William Ash, combining vulnerability with moral authority). Director Deborah Bruce stresses the sufferings of Christ, beaten by Pilate’s thugs, dragging his crosspiece through the groundlings and shrieking piteously while nails are hammered realistically through his hands and feet by joshing workmen in high-vis jackets. There’s a great Last Supper gag.
The apocryphal scene of Christ harrowing hell – facing down demons and leading forth Noah, Adam and Eve – brings more welcome humour, and his apparition after death to the disciples is movingly done. God bursts on to the stage, railing and threatening but also helpless, like King Lear; a witty but troubling touch. Finally, reminding us that we are implicated in the story too, the audience itself is divided into the Saved and the Damned. It’s a little ragged, some episodes flag, the verse can be hard to catch, but even for a post-Christian audience, this relic from a time when religion was popular culture is a superlative feat of storytelling. The music, led by Philip Hopkins, adds an eerie texture.