“Open the clouds”
It is rare that one witnesses people encouraging the clouds to open at any performance at the Globe, it seems like a needless temptation of fate! But nevertheless, Tony Harrison works in the phrase into this play and on this occasion at least, the heavens did not open (although Mary did still get assumpted!) Starting off with God and the creation and whipping through key stories from the Bible – ostensibly with messages incorporated for us in modern life – until we reach the last judgement, The Globe Mysteries is Tony Harrison’s own adaptation of his 1977 version of The Mysteries for the National Theatre.
Played with a cast of 14 who cover over 60 roles between them, we move from the Garden of Eden through Noah to the birth and death of Jesus and then beyond. There’s a rough chronology which sees us sweeping through time so that we end up more or less in a modern-day setting around the time of Jesus’ death which means the whole range of the costume department is exploited. Harrison’s text is a rough kind of verse, with rhyming couplets and modern reference points aplenty but it is a deeply traditional set of stories which doesn’t take well to the transfer and overall, I found it to be rather problematic.
Part of my issue is the inconsistency that comes with the constant changes as story rapidly follows story. Some are told with broad comedy, some are told with a tad more angst and violence, and but most are told with a rather uneasy mixture of it all which rarely works. Playing for laughs from the audience whilst kicking Jesus’ prostate body felt very wrong and I couldn’t see what making the men crucifying him into chatty workmen just doing any old job and posing for a photo with the results actually achieved or revealed to us. And the play suffers from the imbalance of the best stories almost all being compressed into the first half, the second act then really does drag: plus watching people act being in religious rapture is one of my least favourite things ever.
Part of it is also my personal response to the material (which surprised me as much as anything). The presentation of God as an unshaven, cantankerous misogynistic old man just made me angry in the sadistic things that he does: his refusal to give the women (or remember their) names; the casual cruelty of drowning all those not in Noah’s ark; making Abraham suffer so much; even the ‘cuckolding’ of the unknowing Joseph – they all provoked strong reactions in me because of the way they were presented yet are all dealt with swiftly with this enduring lightness of tone. One can see that a medieval audience would have had a completely different relationship to the play and it is difficult to see how that translates to a modern-day audience, at least the more agnostic among them. I just couldn’t see the value in what was being presented, as stories, as pieces of drama, as anything; indeed I couldn’t tell what the point of the whole thing was in the end but perhaps this speaks more to my attitude towards Biblical stories.
The fact that it is all played in a variety of northern accents (with varying success it must be said) was puzzling and a decision which added little. But there’s also a deal of fun in Deborah Bruce’s staging, spreading the action out into the yard with to great effect, especially when the Day of Judgement is looming and the brilliant re-enactment of the Last Supper. The acting is solid rather than spectacular, few people are given the chance to play their characters for more than a few moments and Paul Hunter evidently cannot move a muscle without mugging, something which went beyond tiresome for me. There may be historical value in the Mystery Plays for sure, but attempting to foist a contemporary relevance on them feels rather misjudged and it sits uneasily as a piece of theatre. The website calls it a celebration of “the spirit of medieval street theatre and processional performance” but the truth is for me it failed to really engage on any of these levels and justify its three hour running time.