Environmental issues are the central themes of the 2018 production of Chester Mystery Plays
- Credit: Archant
Actor and writer Deborah McAndrew explains the challenges of making Chester’s medieval Mystery Plays relevant to a modern audience.
Five years ago writer and former Coronation Street actor Deborah McAndrew was sitting in the audience at Chester Cathedral, immersed in the atmosphere of the ancient Mystery Plays.
Little did she know that the next time they would be performed she would be the one who would be responsible for adapting them for a 2018 audience.
For those not au fait with medieval history, the Chester Mystery Plays are Bible stories that were originally written by the Benedictine monastic scholars of the Abbey of St Werburgh, now Chester Cathedral, in the late 13th and early 14th century.
Chester’s are the oldest, most complete set of mystery plays still in full performance today covering the Creation to the Last Judgement. Their original purpose was to spread the word of God to a population that in those days was largely illiterate and certainly would not have been able to read the Bible, which was written in Latin but far from being preachy, they were always topical and entertaining.
In the 16th century, the plays were outlawed as ‘popery’ by the church yet despite this they were performed in 1568 and the cathedral paid for the stage and beer as in 1562. They were performed again, over four days, in 1575. As a result, the city mayor was taken to the Star Chamber in London to answer allegations against him, but with the support of the council he was freed.
The latest Mystery Plays derive from those revived in 1951 as part of celebrations for the Festival of Britain and they have been performed in the city approximately every five years since. Performances have taken place in and around the precincts of Chester Cathedral and for the first time, inside the nave of the Cathedral in 2013.
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‘Mystery doesn’t mean spooky but comes from Mysterium, which means work,’ explains Deborah.
‘These were plays performed by the working people of the various guilds and are really plays of the people.
Director Peter Leslie Wild and composer/musical director Matt Baker are reunited, following the national acclaim of the 2013 production, which involved 400 volunteers as actors, technicians, backstage and front of house staff plus an additional 150 children to take part in the performances which will be held on June 27th to July 14th.
It was Peter who asked Deborah to work on the script and she was delighted to take up the challenge.
She reveals that all the material included in the plays has been sourced from previous texts, with some extracts from the original William Tyndale Bible - the first ever to be printed in English.
‘Because of their length they are like the raw material that I had to extract from. First of all I had to edit them down and then create a ‘treatment’ of the plays, pulling out themes and thinking about their staging,’ she says.
‘In 2013 they were fantastic. Stephanie Dale who worked with Peter did them as plays by separate groups of people but I said: “why don’t we treat them as if it’s one big play that the people of Cheshire are doing”. That was my starting point.
This structure has posed other challenges for Deborah, not least that the main character of the plays, Jesus, arrives after the second half. She is also aware that she can no longer make assumptions that people know their Bible. ‘Especially in 2018 because people aren’t as familiar now as they used to be with Christian scripture,’ she says.
‘I’ve not made it too modern. I haven’t written a single original word, it’s all been edited but the creative thing has come from these editorial choices.’
To make it relevant today Deborah has taken the 100 year anniversary of the end of World War 1 as one theme. ‘I felt it would be remiss at this point not to acknowledge that,’ she says.
‘And the over-arching theme is the environment. Noah’s flood is a thing that actually happened. I am not a climate change denier. I don’t have strong opinions about many things but this is something which we are seeing the evidence of in this world and we have to address this. God’s creation is a beautiful universe and human beings are damaging it.’
Working on the Chester Mystery Plays has given Deborah the pleasure of discovering the city itself. ‘I love history and the plays have told me something about the people of Chester from long ago,’ she says.
She is still recognised as Angie Freeman, her role in Coronation Street in the 1990s, even though it was only for four years out of a career that has spanned three decades. Writing offers her a ‘broader spectrum of creativity than acting she says. ‘When you’re acting you are restricted to roles that are for a particular gender, age and height but when you write you can be anybody.
‘I enjoyed Coronation Street but it was just part of the tapestry of my career. I decided to go, not because I hated the job but because I craved variety and playing one part for a long time didn’t appeal to me.
‘I did go back 15 years ago and did a spell of storylining. I really enjoyed it. I’m now even more admiring of the people who write these programmes and a lot that came out of it was very positive.’
The 2018 production of Chester Mystery Plays is at Chester Cathedral from June 27 - July 14. www.chestermysteryplays.com