Magic and Mystery; Director Robin Goddard Isn't Afraid of Controversy, as He Creates a More Accessible Take on the Traditional Chester Mystery Plays
Byline: Emma Pinch reports
JUDAS as Jesus's dupe, a tetchy, blundering God, spinning crosses and exploding body parts. Whatever else audiences make of this year's Chester Mystery Plays, people will certainly be left with plenty to talk about.
Director Robin Goddard's take on the ancient texts has already caused a stir with cast members.
"The original text is Biblical, and I'm not religious," he states. "I respect anyone who is, but I can't write and direct it just aimed at a religious audience.
Nowadays, people want drama and emotional characters, and in certain areas it will be controversial. Some people have taken it personally. But my priority is to entertain."
There's a good reason the Mystery Plays are performed only every five years - the scale of the half-million pound production is phenomenal.
Goddard is directing more than 560 drama enthusiasts, including 300 children and a donkey, in five hours of live performance. A week ago, work started from scratch on St Werburgh's Cathedral Green on a lavish theatre, equipped with all the attendant health and safety conundrums and conveniences that modern audiences demand.
The open-air element provides its own challenges. In 2003, the set was struck by lightning and the cast and audience were deluged by heavy, continuous rain. Donkey braying and the wailing of an ambulance competed with Jesus's cries as He died on the cross.
When he directed in 2003, he admits he was aiming for competency and played it safe.
His new viewpoint is that of the sceptical "gawpers" of the time with mercurial allegiances, rather than the dyed-in-the-wool Christian.
"People will like Lucifer," he explains. "We have a guy who is a professional magician. He's a very likeable character who rebels against the system and wants to change things.
"God is not what you would expect. He's God with faults. I'm not making out it is the first creation, rather it's just one He had a go at. He got excited, overreached himself and wants to destroy everyone because He got it wrong."
HE DELIBERATELY didn't watch Liverpool's Nativity, as he also aims for a realistic approach, although his production won't be "Mary and Joseph booking into a B&B".
"You can't really do much about the Crucifixion," he points out, "it has to be as it was. But I don't go for this image of a very clean Jesus hanging from the cross and smiling down at everyone. He is going to be brutalised and he isn't going to go quietly."
He scoured modern history for ideas.
"I've found Idi Amin's regime lends itself well to that of Herod.
The boy soldiers brought up by urban guerrillas, older people who do what they are paid to do and it doesn't matter how they do it.
Children are just casualties and the Slaughter of the Innocents is quite bloody. Stories written all those years ago do have modern comparatives."
There's a similarly modern take on the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. One is a woman, the feisty Mary Magdalen, not the prostitute he states the Church made her because of her sex.
"Even before the Da Vinci Code came out, with the idea of a woman disciple, I didn't believe these guys walked through the desert and had nothing to do with women and never went home. And some disciples were closer to Him than others. Judas, for example. It was very easy to make him into a villain. He was the closest to Jesus, and Jesus was quite cruel to him.
He was a victim."
This year marks the first time since the revival of the Chester Mystery plays in 1951 that the coming of an anti-Christ has been included. He - though it is a she in Goddard's version - replicates the miracles of Christ, accusing Jesus of being an impostor and claiming the title of Messiah for herself.
"I saw parallels with the modern cult of celebrity," he says. …