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2006 November - The 60th Anniversary at St Clement Eastcheap


Plays and people  |  Photographs  |  About the show

For it is written...

The idea of a Book simply held or passed on – representing Truth, or the Word of God – was used to thread the plays together.
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1 In the beginning the word is with God the Father in the 'heavenly empire'.
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2 God the Son hands the Book to disgraced Man in token of hope and redemption.
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3 The Angel draws Noah's attention to a flood of useful tips in the DIY section.
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4 The comforting bulk of the pages balances Sibil's discomfiting prophecy.
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5 God the Son carries it at the climax of the Annunciation.
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6 Gabriel throws the Book at Joseph for entertaining doubt.
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7 Before the Birth, Mary hands it up to the attendant Angels, guardians of Truth.
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8 The Book remains with the Angel during the Shrewsbury Shepherd scene.
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9 In Herod's court, the Three Kings are armoured against evil by the Word.
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10 After the Adoration, the Book reappears in the hands of the warning Angel.
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11 It is borne by Gabriel once more, on a follow-up visit to brief Mary about the Presentation.
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12 Book in hand, the Epilogue Player gives thanks for 60 years and contemplates “many to come”.

This year is a significant milestone in the history of the Players of St Peter as we celebrate our 60th year of annual performance of Christmas plays.

Alongside our strong core group of long-standing actors we welcome new members each year. This happy blend of talents and experience gives us a fresh slant each time on our chosen scenes – most of which come from play-cycles developed to be performed by trade guild members as “well-arrayed” productions at annual town festivals throughout the medieval period. They were intended to entertain and to illustrate eternal themes from biblical stories in a local way that would appeal to fellow citizens.

This year we are celebrating the variety of our medieval heritage of English plays and so I have selected scenes from texts that have survived from all round the country to form a pageant linked by songs of the period and the passing of the Book from scene to scene.

Some of the plays are from the four well-known cycles that we perform regularly; others are little known scenes or even fragmentary excerpts from incomplete texts which give us a tantalising glimpse into what treasures of plays have not survived.

We begin with the Norwich Grocers’ Play of the creation of woman and the succumbing of Adam and Eve to the blandishment (by a shortcut challenge represented by the apple) to taste of God’s knowledge and power. Usually the fall of man play ends sadly, but in this post-Reformation version, we see God the Son and the Holy Ghost giving Adam and Eve the scriptures to read by themselves as a guide to life and support them under the burden of life’s Grief and Misery.

In the unusual Newcastle Shipwrights’ play about Noah, a non-shipbuilder told to save creation from the Flood, we see Lucifer trying once again – this time unsuccessfully – to tempt humankind to frustrate God’s plan. He uses Mrs Noah and a bottle of strong drink to try to take Noah away from the ark-making task in hand.

With both good news of Christ’s coming and a warning to the future, the Wakefield Prophets appear, and York’s Lucifer is seen delighting in his ability to entice humankind away from God. The beautiful Salutation of Mary scene from the “N”-town script (possibly Lincoln) brings the Trinity and Gabriel to bless Mary’s acceptance – after a breathless pause – of becoming Christ’s mother.

This spiritual climax is cut across by the York Pewterers’ play in which Joseph blames Mary’s guardian neighbours for letting her become pregnant in his absence. With the truth revealed to him, Joseph ends up with Mary in busy Bethlehem where the child is born, observed by the characterful midwives from Chester and the watchful angels.

The fragmentary Shrewsbury text giving just the young third Shepherd’s lines forms a gentle and unique scene straight from that unknown medieval actor’s notes.

Following this comes the splendour of the choicest scenes from the texts introducing the pilgrim Kings following the star from the east and meeting the challenge of the tyrant Herod, who cannot bear the idea revealed to him by the Kings and his own Doctors of Law that a newborn boy will challenge him as king. His vengefulness and ultimate fate are signalled in an extract from the N-town Death of Herod play after we have seen the Kings find the end of their quest in a stable.

We conclude with the energetic Coventry weavers’ play of the Presentation of Christ where this time a woman (Mary) is seen motivating her husband for a good purpose as he sets out to seek for the doves as their offering. All then join in the temple blessing as Jesus is welcomed with bells and singing, rounded off with an Epilogue of thanks linking the medieval past with our players’ current work and the valued support of our audience.