CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Yorkshire Life today CLICK HERE

Playwright Mike Kenny talks about tackling the York Mystery Plays

14:15 30 January 2012

Olivier Award-winning York playwright Mike Kenny in the ruins of St Mary’s - the setting for this year’s York Mystery Plays

Olivier Award-winning York playwright Mike Kenny in the ruins of St Mary’s - the setting for this year’s York Mystery Plays

Olivier award-winning playwright Mike Kenny tells Jo Haywood how he tackles York Mystery Plays Photographs by Dean Walters-Holliday


The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Yorkshire Life

We can deliver a copy direct to your door order online here

When God is your leading man its important that you get his script right. Which probably explains why Mike Kenny experienced what he describes as a few hyperventilating moments when reinterpreting Yorks iconic Mystery Plays for 2012.

He is unusual in the history of play cycle writers in that he actually lives in the city, which has proved to be something of a blessing and a curse. He already had a strong relationship with York, its history and its theatrical community though his work, most notably his massively successful production of The Railway Children, allowing him to bypass the usual getting-to-know-you stage and plough straight into the writing. But, as a fellow resident, he hasnt been able to bypass York people with firm ideas of how their Mystery Plays should be staged.

People expect you to have a grand plan when you start a project like this, but I just had a lot of half-baked ideas some of them not even as baked as that, Mike said.

Lots of other people had their own grand plans though and were more than willing to share them. The funniest was when I was at the gym. This chap cornered me in the changing room to tell me about his vision of the Mystery Plays, completely oblivious to the fact that I had no clothes on. Not a stitch.

The plays, taking place between August 2nd and 27th, are being organised by York Museums Trust, York Theatre Royal and Riding Lights Theatre Company. More than 1,000 community members will be involved in staging the production and it is hoped that 28,000 people will come and watch the performances.

In other words, this is a major event for the city and a major challenge for the man chosen to condense 14 hours of a 48-play cycle into a single three-hour production.

I just hope Ive got it right, said Mike. Ive had my hyperventilating period, now Im just happy my part is done. All I can hope now is that it makes sense and that the story shines through.

The Mystery Plays were a great medieval tradition in York for centuries, providing a way of bringing religious messages to the streets of the city. In one day, at least 48 plays involving important events in Christian history were performed, starting at 4.30am with wagon parades through the streets.

It is known that the plays were being performed as a group in 1376, although there are earlier references to religious performances that predate this. The plays continued for a short time after the Reformation but were finally suppressed in 1569.

The tradition was revived in 1951, when they were performed to 26,000 people in the ruins of St Marys Abbey. It was a huge success and the plays continued to be performed on the same site at three of four year intervals until 1988. They were then performed at York Theatre Royal in 1992 and 1996 before being held in York Minster to celebrate the new millennium.

The 2012 York Mystery Plays are returning to the ruins of St Marys, but this time in a purpose-built outdoor theatre with seating for 1,400 and a canopy over the audience (yes, its a summer production, but this is a Yorkshire summer).

In the past, I think audiences have gritted their teeth and pushed on through to the end of the plays, said Mike. But this shouldnt be ordeal by theatre. People definitely wont need their I survived the Mystery Plays badges this year.

Any playwright presented with such a mammoth commission could be forgiven for seeing it as an opportunity to radically change what has gone before. Initially, Mike was no exception, but then he started studying the original plays and was struck by their simple yet effective storytelling.

I thought I was going to grab the Mystery Plays and give them a good old shake, so no one was more surprised than me when I ended up sticking incredibly close to the original, he said. Ive acted more as curator than writer in this instance, paring back the outer layers and scraping away more recent additions to reveal the original story.

Its like I stormed into church shouting hey, lets have a party and then got quieter and quieter because a party no longer seemed appropriate.
Mike was raised in a Christian household but no longer practises any religion. He doesnt think his agnosticism had any bearing on his approach to the text though.

I dont know if it matters whether Im a believer or not, he said. I feel comfortable in that world and with the idea of a deity. If I was a confirmed atheist, I would struggle. But if I was a practising Christian with my own axe to grind, it would also be a problem.

You have to remember that this tradition started on the streets of York, not in the minster. These are brilliantly human stories. More human than divine.

His script is now finished and in the technical stage of production. Mikes role from now on is as an interested observer, which allows him to take a step back and enjoy the Mystery Plays as a York resident, with all the benefits that entails.

The Mystery Plays are a piece of world heritage, he said. This is peoples art that should have the same status as the minster itself. And the people of York own this incredible work of art. It belongs to them to us. How amazing is that?






A preview of the 2012 York Mystery Plays by York Theatre Royal


Feeling angelic?


York Mystery Plays needs a host of angels to ensure its success. You dont need wings and a halo though, just 150 and a generous nature.


By becoming an angel you are pledging your support to the biggest cultural event in York in 2012, said Liz Wilson, chief executive officer of York Theatre Royal. In return, you will receive unique privileges including access to the VIP area and the chance to meet key people involved.


All money raised will be used in the production of this not-for-profit community project the biggest the region has witnessed for a decade.


York Mystery Plays angels will receive: two performance tickets in the best seats available; access to the VIP hospitality area; acknowledgement in the official programme; two free programmes; and invitations to rehearsals and special events.

To find out more, visit www.yorkmysteryplays2012.com

Saintly patrons

The Duke of York said he was honoured to have been invited to return as patron of the Mystery Plays, a role he previously filled in 2000, adding: I have been impressed by the scale and ambition of the project and how new partnerships have been formed between organisations and businesses across the city.


I am looking forward to seeing for myself what we will surely be one of the cultural highlights of 2012. Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said: This is a very exciting project and will provide a wonderful spectacle for the city. As you prepare to tell the story of God at work in Creation and Redemptions, I pray that you will be inspired by the majesty of the story, and that others will be encouraged in faith and hope. Dame Judi Dench, who is originally from York, said: Having performed in the York Mystery Plays three times, I know the excitement that these events bring to the people of York and the important place they hold within the citys history.

When I heard the Mystery Plays were returning to Museum Gardens and the scale and ambition which the organisers have for the production, I was honoured to become patron.
I urge you to get involved with the York Mystery Plays 2012 and experience the magic of creating theatre with your own community. It is something I will always remember.

0 comments

More from Out & About

Mon, 00:00

It’s time we ditched old stereotypes and recognised how Barnsley is changing, says Richard Darn.

Read more
Thursday, November 24, 2016

Winter is the perfect time to enjoy an easily overlooked but striking group of birds – the thrushes, as Tom Marshall from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reports

Read more
Yorkshire Wildlife
Sunday, November 20, 2016

East Yorkshire has always been trading hub and the formation of market towns in this area were formed on the back of the large trade of the coastal settlements and the large agricultural industry in the area.

Read more
Yorkshire Wolds
Thursday, November 17, 2016

Crowds head for the largest shopping centre in northern England which has opened in Leeds.

Read more
Leeds
Monday, November 14, 2016

Richard Darn suggests five great reasons for visiting Calderdale, a treasure he believes doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Read more
Hebden Bridge
Monday, November 14, 2016

The Wildlife Trusts run a range of projects across the country designed to use nature to help improve physical and mental health and contribute to a sense of well-being.

Read more
Sheffield
Monday, November 14, 2016

Hull is set for a year-long party and we’re all invited, as Jo Haywood reports

Read more
Hull
Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Why did the hedgehog cross the road? To see his ‘flat mate’, of course. The joke may be one of the oldest in the book, but the scene which inspired it is no longer as common as you might think; and not because these charismatic creatures have worked out how to use a pedestrian crossing.

Read more
Yorkshire Wildlife
Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Terry Fletcher enjoys a low-level exploration of Yorkshire’s most challenging hill country.

Read more
Yorkshire Dales Walks
Monday, November 7, 2016

From the fairy tale settings to the highest in the land located at the back of a pub, Yorkshire is a county awash with waterfalls.

Read more
photography

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:



Subscribe or buy a mag today


subscription ad
Yorkshire Life Application Link

Follow us on Twitter


Like us on Facebook

Local Business Directory

Yorkshire's trusted business finder

Job search in your local area




Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search