Richard Bratby

Why the Chester Mystery Plays are more popular than ever

There’s an honesty – a robustness – to these 13th century dramas that can feel startlingly relatable

Duncan Crompton as Jesus in the Chester Mystery Plays at Chester Cathedral. Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Hang around for long enough at Chester Cross, and theatre is pretty much guaranteed. It’s a Saturday morning in May: a human statue holds his pose, a remote-control buggy zips about advertising the spring sale at MenKind and three connoisseurs of discount cider are making their views known from the bench outside St Peter’s Church. All normal for Chester, and when the Town Crier strides up, crowds gather on the first-floor Rows like the audience at a Tudor playhouse. Oyez! The people of the city seek permission to stage the latest cycle of the city’s medieval Mystery Plays and tradition dictates that the Banns be read in public some six weeks before the first performance.

You might wonder what tradition has to say about what comes next. An accordion strikes up and the players march around the corner to the steps of the town hall, where the mayor, in full regalia, is given a blast of jazz sax before announcing that the production may proceed. Everyone applauds; some people laugh. Well, it’s funny. But what’s the point of a tradition if you can’t reinvent it?

‘A lot of people in this year’s cycle have never done it before and that’s vital if something is going to stay alive’

The Chester Mystery Plays are a collection of 24 short biblical dramas by unknown writers, performed by the guildsmen of the city between the late 13th century and the reign of Elizabeth I for a public who had no access to scripture in English. York, Coventry and Wakefield have Mysteries too, but Cestrians will assure you that theirs is the most complete surviving text, and the only cycle still to be staged, as a matter of course, every five years.

So this year’s cycle will be the first since 2018 and it’s a piece of community theatre on a city-wide scale. Similar examples of communal mass theatre in Europe – the Salzburg Everyman, say, or the Oberammergau Passion Play – have been professionalised, or descended into local infighting. The Chester Mystery Plays remain open to anyone, amateur or professional, who fancies having a go. This year’s director, John Young, has the task of creating a coherent company from whatever the city can offer, and then telling a story that spans the entire cosmos and the whole of known time.

‘I’ve directed community productions with a variety of different groups ranging from homeless people to drug addicts – but never on this scale,’ says Young. ‘Some people want to do it because – well, how often do you get to play Jesus, and be crucified? Some people are definitely involved in these plays because of their faith. Others will do it just because they always do it. And we’ve got actors who have never performed at all. There’s a chap playing Pontius Pilate who’s never ever been on stage. There’s something really beautiful about that: a lot of people in this year’s cycle have never done it before, and that’s vital, if something is going to stay alive and grow.’

The Mysteries do seem to be flourishing. The cast alone numbers more than 200 people, in addition to technicians, a choir, a children’s company and a band. All this to sustain a civic tradition which (that dreary old ‘gotcha’) turns out to have been revived in its modern form only in 1951. Still, we cherish a lot of things – the welfare state, the Royal Festival Hall, Gardeners’ Question Time – that only appeared around the time of the Festival of Britain. Chester, with its mock-Tudor architecture and colourful civic customs, is the sort of place that we’re sometimes told represents a fantasy England that never really existed. I grew up in nearby Wirral and my family used to rendezvous after Saturday shopping at the Cross, to see the Crier with his tricorn and handbell. I assumed, as a kid, that most cities had Town Criers and Mystery Plays. It certainly seemed real enough.

There’s an honesty – a robustness – to these simple dramas that can feel startlingly relatable. The original writers recast the Biblical tales in cheerful rhyme, and placed the characters directly into the life of the medieval city. The result is like a Bruegel sprung to life. Noah’s wife tells her husband he’s a fool and refuses to enter the Ark; Caesar levies a tax of one penny on ‘each country, castle shire and city’. (‘Shall poor as well as rich pay?’ asks one character. ‘That were a wondrous wrong.’). A frantic Joseph runs out of the stable in search of a midwife for Mary. Through it all flows a sense of something bigger, as the voice of a satisfyingly Old Testament God roars doom from on high: ‘That I have made with my own might / Now think I to destroy.’

Or rather, the two voices: in this year’s production, God is both male and female. It’s all part of the process of renewal that occurs every time the Mysteries are revived. The script, too, is revisited every five years – retaining the vigour and colour of Old English, but trimmed so that what once was performed over several days on carts in the city streets now fits into an evening’s entertainment in Chester Cathedral. Actor Becca Patch moved from London to Cheshire in 2016 and found a ready-made theatrical community in the Mysteries. She was Lucifer in 2018, and plays one half of the Almighty this time around.

‘We’re actually quite faithful to the original text, but there has to be some kind of editing,’ she says. ‘There’s a section we call “the begats”. Nebuchadnezzar begat Solomon who begat… The begats go on for a couple of hours. Interesting as lineage is, I’m not sure it’ll engage an audience.’ Meanwhile, the Mysteries’ musical director, Matt Baker (the bloke with the accordion), has composed an original score for exactly the musicians, of exactly the abilities, that the city has brought him. ‘We’ve got a brilliant cellist, we’ve got some beautiful guitarists. We’ve got somebody who plays – and is allowed to play – the cathedral organ. We’ve got a hurdy-gurdy player and somebody who plays the shofar, the Jewish ritual trumpet.’

There’s your metaphor right there: the mere act of pulling all this diversity together into rough-cut but real harmony is its own justification. True, these are religious dramas born out of a specific place and culture, but for many of the participants – Patch included – it’s the sense of collaboration, and of continuity, that gives the Mysteries their vitality and their value. ‘I’m an atheist,’ she says, ‘so I don’t find a huge connection with the religious meaning of the text. I’m certainly respectful of it, but I think the most important thing is the sense of inclusion. Particularly after Covid, when we were told to stay away from each other, it’s a celebration of being able to come together, and to form a community again.’ For Young, the very ancientness of the plays makes them a sort of common ground. ‘I’m not going to wedge a concept into the Bible,’ says Young. ‘I’m not thinking, “We’re missing a big political message.” I don’t think this is the right vehicle for that.’

It’s part panto, part ritual; gloriously silly and also, somehow, serious

As for what it actually is – you have to see it, really. A week before opening night the full company has moved into the Cathedral for technical rehearsals. I join them a day after they’ve done Cain and Abel,justas they’re running Noah’s Flood (the play that Britten adapted into an opera). It’s cheerful chaos. God’s throne, framed in neon, towers over the nave; children, musicians and techies mill about the ancient cloisters that serve as dressing rooms. A papier-mâché dove the size of an ostrich flops from a railing; a woman walks around with what looks like the sun on a stick.

Young’s voice crackles through a microphone: ‘Sinners to their places, please.’ Lights dim, smoke hisses, 12 townsfolk-turned-actors flourish planks of wood, and with a thunderclap and a blast of choral music, Noah’s Ark is suddenly plunging through the Flood. It’s part panto, part ritual; gloriously silly and also, somehow, serious in a way that goes deeper and wider than those timeless, homespun words. The material might have originated in the age of Chaucer, but here in 2023 it looks very much like Young has got a show. ‘What I’m focused on is making these plays feel sharp and quick and fresh and exhilarating,’ he says. ‘I want the audience to feel like they’re hearing these stories for the very first time.’

The Chester Mystery Plays are at Chester Cathedral until 15 July.