Shakespeare’s Globe, situated on the banks of the Thames in old London town, couldn’t feel more northern at the moment if it had cobbled streets, a pet whippet and a young boy delivering Hovis.
Tony Harrison’s new production, The Globe Mysteries, takes a collection of famous Biblical tales and a few flights of religious fancy and places them squarely in the north of the country. A bit odd, maybe, considering the title of the piece places it firmly in the south, but the most famous of the mystery plays of the Middle Ages do come from Chester and York, so you can understand the thinking even if sometimes the accents make the dialogue a little testing.
Harrison’s poetry too, with its insistent rhyme and commitment to alliteration, can, at times, feel devilishly dense in its devious detail or slightly stilted in its need to be lilted, but the stories and themes are ones the audience knows well enough to clamber over any obstacles created by the text.
We see David Hargreaves’s God unpacking the Earth from a selection of removal crates, Paul Hunter’s impish Lucifer fall from grace, Adam and Eve with an inventive tree of knowledge, Noah, and the tale of Abraham told with both humour and heartbreak before we reach the Nativity.
The shepherds in the world’s best known story are given a tale of their own before William Ash’s Jesus comes to the forefront of proceedings, making it as far as the cross before the interval.
This leaves the second half for a little more invention around the Bible stories as Ash sets about saving mankind and building to the moral ending that traditionally forces to audience to question how they live their lives in the light of Judgement Day.
The problem with the mystery plays is that, with so many stories squeezed in, you barely have time to build up any emotional bond with the characters. That’s not to say you can’t still be drawn into an emotional response – Herod’s hunting of all male children is particularly disturbing – but it is hard to feel much for characters you hardly know.
Yet the stories have all stood the test of time; we’re comfortable with them, they feel familiar, and there is much to enjoy in Deborah Bruce’s staging, from the imposing crucifixion preceded by Ash’s struggle through the groundlings, to the inventive way the three wise men make their way to Bethlehem.
The cast, too, make it an enjoyable ride; Hunter works the crowd with panache, while Philip Cumbus and Matthew Pidgeon stand out as characters ranging from Gabriel to Beelzebub.
I’m not sure that in 2012 the mystery plays have quite the same ability to force audiences to question their way of living, but it’s probably no bad thing at the moment to point out the difference between right and wrong, and The Globe Mysteries is an engaging, theatrical way of doing just that.