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Exclusive: Mark Dornford-May on why the Chester Mystery Plays are so important to him

First Published 7 September 2009, Last Updated 20 August 2013

As the Laurence Olivier Award-winning South African company Isango Portobello returns to the West End, its Artistic Director, Mark Dornford-May, talks to Official London Theatre about his long association with the Chester Mystery Plays and the truly life-changing effects of this show.

The plays of the Chester Mystery Cycle form some of my earliest memories. As an eight-year-old angel in front of the north side of Chester Cathedral I remember being really and truly in awe of God because his face was painted gold and he spoke in a language (Latin) that was at once thrilling and mysterious. My father directed at least seven productions of The Chester Mystery Cycle plays, all of which I appeared in, although much as he loved me, even he never cast me as an angel again! 

I suppose I fell for these plays playing soldiers and devils until at last I got to play Christ. In this way my relationship with the Chester Mysteries is not vastly different to the medieval apprentice who, over a number of years, would play various roles suitable to his age. Gradually, as I played different roles, helped to build sets – I probably have more experience of the practicalities of crucifixion than most 20th century men! – and made costumes, I became more and more aware of the complete unity and theatrical beauty of the cycle. The more you are exposed to these plays, the more you love them.
For me these plays represent some of the best of all our dramatic literature. It is easy to think of our medieval forefathers as illiterate, but these people built the great churches, created extraordinary tapestries and wrote and illustrated some of the most complex books in the world. They may have been different in outlook but they were certainly not stupid or dull.

As dramatic texts, they are quite brilliant. Who cannot be moved by Isaac begging his father to beat him with a stick rather than kill him, or not laugh at Noah’s domestic troubles? Often, as with Shakespeare, in those moments of greatest emotion the language is simple and monosyllabic but searing in its intensity. They were, no less than the cathedrals, great examples of community skill and enterprise more transient than stone but no less epic in their combination of the material world with the spiritual one. Whoever wrote these plays, and we don’t know who, has to be one of theatre’s greatest practitioners.

What about Isango’s The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso? In 2001 The Mysteries was my first South African production and it went fantastically well! Together with our production of Carmen it led to me staying in South Africa and my life being changed for ever. We now have more strength as a company and therefore I believe this ‘new’ version, while firmly built on those early foundations, has even more emotional power and depth.

When we brought the original production in 2001 from Cape Town to Wilton’s Music Hall in London the first few performances were empty, I mean really empty. Quite literally only one or two people came. Then on the third or fourth performance Jonathan Miller, Simon Callow, Charles Spencer and Richard Morrison turned up. Between them, individually not collectively, they somehow changed the life of this company. Within 48 hours of their visit you couldn’t get a ticket and we were having to extend our stay by a month. They have probably never realised that by either writing as they did, or phoning around or whatever, something like three hundred people a year in African townships have been eating!

On a different level, as I write this and remember those hugely dedicated and talented amateur actors I worked with as a child and teenager, I realise that my deep-rooted belief in a theatre for the people, by the people, grew directly out of these fantastic plays. When God walks onstage to open this latest version I hope that in the wings some of the ghosts of past performers, medieval apprentices, Tudor merchants, mid-twentieth century carpenters and teachers are there to watch us continue the tradition.

Mark Dornford-May
Director of The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso


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