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2000 November - The Director's Choice at St Clement Eastcheap

Plays and people  |  Photographs  |  About the show

The year 2000 is special and we are marking it by departing from our usual custom of selecting scenes from just one of the main cycles of English mystery plays. Instead, I have envisaged this year’s production as a festival gathering of plays from our heritage of 15th-century pageants from all around England, illustrating the medieval vision of the Bible stories in which God reveals his plans to mankind, and culminating in the birth of Christ and his presentation and dedication in the Temple.

Using little-known and fragmentary texts – including a very special first performance of one play – as well as some of the better-known scenes from the main cycle plays, we are demonstrating how widespread a feature of medieval English life these plays were, and how popular the tradition of play-making to celebrate religious festivals and holidays was among ordinary people, as indeed it remains into the 21st century. These plays are fore-runners of both the Shakespearean drama and the English pantomime tradition.

This year, in a new production approach, I have divided our cast into different guild groupings to perform seven separate plays, in between which (as well as within the pays) we feature music and song – both sacred and folk – of the period. Beginning with a few lines of a prologue from a Durham text and a rousing song, we hear from the banns announcing the Norwich Grocers’ play. This leads us into the mystery and the performance of the play featuring a God who cares about the loneliness of man even in paradise, and so creates woman out of his rib. He names the tree “the knowing of good and ill” and remarks “a warned man may live, who can that deny?” After mankind has fallen into the temptation of wanting to be as gods themselves, they become prey to the clutches of doubt, Grief and Misery, but go forth into mortality enlivened by the passionate preaching of the Holy Ghost and gospels’ hope.

From Newcastle we then show the Shipwrights’ play of why Noah (a non-shipwright!) came to build an ark and how Lucifer tried to upset God’s plan to save Noah and his family.

From York, the lively Hosiers’ play portrays how a reluctant Moses is used by God to save his oppressed people and the retribution wreaked on the biblical tyrant Pharoah and his cohort, leading them into a dance of Death while those saved sing of the joy of their release.

We then turn to the New Testament plays – first, from Wakefield, the very spiritual Annunciation play leading into the happy Chester Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. The multi-scened Chester Wrights’ play of the Birth of Christ features the visionary emperor Octavian and his prophetess Sibyl framing the actual birth scene in the stable, superintended by the traditional midwives.

Our next play is taken from a fragmentary text from Shrewsbury which contains only one actor’s lines and his cues. With similarities to the York Shepherds’ play (with three shepherds), this text focuses our attention on the view of the unnamed quiet third shepherd. We are proud to present what is surely the first production of this text as a play since the fifteenth century, and we hope you will feel the quiet power of the text in the way we have staged this scene to reflect its simplicity.

Our concluding play from the Coventry Weavers’ Guild brings comedy in the dove-chasing scene and excited celebration as Christ is greeted in the Temple – a scene that draws all the company together to join in the final carol.


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