Magazine article The Spectator

Biblical Marathon

Magazine article The Spectator

Biblical Marathon

Article excerpt

Theatre The Mysteries (Cottesloe) The Servant of Two Masters (The Other Place, Stratford, till 22 January; The Young Vic from 4 February)

Biblical marathon Patrick Carnegy

The National Theatre is marking the millennium with a superb revival of The Mysteries, last seen in 1985. The Yorkshire poet Tony Harrison's text, crafted from the mediaeval mystery cycles, makes three plays encompassing God's dealings with man from the Creation through to the end of the world. The plays are given separately but can also be experienced, as I chose to do, as an all-day marathon (there's one further chance on 22 January). It's tough, but rewarding. You begin cheerfully enough at 11 a.m., are allowed two substantial breaks, and with any luck emerge at 10 p.m. with a new perspective on the Bible's hold on human history. You go out into the night under no illusion that God has the gravest doubts about having given man breath at all. Yet, paradoxically, the show isn't in the least gloomy. Disconcerting, yes, but exhilarating and uplifting for believers and nonbelievers alike. That is the special theatrical magic of Bill Bryden's production.

The full experience requires that you should not be seated upstairs but promenade on the arena floor of the Cottesloe and thus be in the thick of the action seemingly improvised in a 1970-ish Yorkshire working men's club. Warm amber light flickers aloft from a galaxy of postmodern lampshades that includes old oilheaters, storm lanterns, colanders and cheesegraters. On a balcony, a band strikes up a dance in which the boiler-suited actors, separating themselves from the throng, zestfully join. By the time one of them is hoisted aloft on a fork-lift truck and explains he's Alpha and Omega, you've got the picture and spend the rest of your long day keeping up with the players children loved every moment of it.

The more remarkable episodes in the first part, The Nativity, include a terrifying pagan celebration of the Fall by dancers in huge swaying drum-skirts and African masks, and the pin-stripe-suited Noah's building of his boat, its wooden ribs seemingly plundered from the chest of a dinosaur. Among the nativity scenes is the non-biblical episode of Mak the Sheepstealer in which which a dead sheep stolen from the shepherds is placed in a manger as Mr and Mrs Mak's supper. It's a comic intermezzo, bizarrely parodying the birth and death of the Lamb of God.

In The Passion, Jesus faces Pilate down a corridor carved through the audience. He is scourged with showers of sparks from metalworkers' angle-grinders, pliers secure his crown of barbed-wire and no detail of the protracted crucifixion is left to the imagination. …

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