For only the second time in 700 years, York Minster hosts the ‘greatest story ever told’

Community actors who will play Mary and Joseph, Ruby Barker, 18, and Mark Comer, 57.
Community actors who will play Mary and Joseph, Ruby Barker, 18, and Mark Comer, 57.
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Mighty York Minster is providing a spectacular setting for the “greatest story ever told” for the second time in its 700-year history.

The York Mystery Plays, which has its traditional opening tonight on the feast of Corpus Christi, are being bought back to life by a backstage army of workers and volunteers and a cast of 200 in front of an audience of up to 1,000.

Today cast and crew were blessed by Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu before the opening in the Minster’s Nave.

Star of Game of Thrones, actor, Philip McGinley, takes the lead as Jesus in a production directed by the multi award-winning director Phillip Breen.

Video: Behind the scenes at York Minster’s Mystery Plays

The plays, which date back to the 1300s, were a way of dramatising the Christian message when the Bible, which was in Latin, was out of reach to ordinary people. They start with the Creation and end with Judgement Day, taking in the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, the flight into Egypt, the Last Supper and the birth and trial of Jesus.

They were last performed in the Minster in 2000 and Bradford-born Mike Poulton, who supplied the script then, returns with a shorter version along with musical director Dr Richard Shepherd, who wrote the score for the Millennium Mystery Plays.

Poulton, whose recent work includes adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies for the Royal Shakespeare Company, has knocked 20 minutes off the 2000 script. He said: “I wanted it to come in at two and a half hours. I think audiences have a shorter time span (but) they will stay with it providing you keep their attention.

“The original plays started on the Feast of Corpus Christi at 4.30am and went on til midnight with breaks in-between – like watching a series of short programmes. We had to find a different way.”

The early scripts were hidden away after the Reformation until they were rediscovered in the Victorian period. Poulton’s version aims to preserve the “Yorkshire twang”. He said: “I’ve kept as close to the original as I possibly can but there are parts that are inaccessible because of the vocabulary. I’ve tried to preserve the language patterns, the Yorkshire twang.

“They were written by the priests, but performed by the people of York for the people of York. We call it the greatest story ever told – it reflects everything that happens in

the life of a man and a woman and very experience they encounter.”

The 160-strong cast is backed up by 240 backstage volunteers, who come from all different walks of life. In all 2,000 hours have been spent on completing the stage, while skilled volunteers have made a host of props including 48 wings, 50 halos and a crown of thorns. People have bought tickets from Europe, the Far East, from the USA and Canada, as well as from York, Yorkshire and the rest of the UK.

Dr Sentamu urged people to come and see the spectacle. He said: “I saw the set for the first time last Sunday for the ordination of 20 priests, having been out on the road as part of my Pilgrimage. The setting is stunning.

“York Minster’s long nave has been transformed into a great theatre, and if you haven’t yet got your ticket to come and see the Mystery Plays in this magnificent setting – don’t delay.”

Dean of York Minster Vivienne Faull added: “After a gap of 16 years it is a great pleasure and enormously exciting to stage the Mystery Plays at York Minister again. The stories of the plays are stamped across the very fabric of the cathedral, from the carvings in the stonework to the stained glass in the Great East Window, which depicts the cycles dramatised in the plays.”

Restoration drama

Produced originally by York’s craft guilds, the plays were banned by the Tudor monarchy in 1569.

They were bought back to the public’s attention through the persistence of an American antiquarian, Lucy Toulin Smith, who had them republished in 1885.

The performances were revived in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain.

In keeping with tradition cast members over the last 60 years have been amateurs drawn from the local community with just one professional actor.

Famous faces over the years have included Dame Judi Dench, Robson Green and Ray Stevenson.