The Globe Mysteries
Original performances of the York cycle of medieval mystery plays lasted from midsummer dawn to dusk. Tony Harrison’s version, now in repertory at the Globe Theatre until 1 October, compresses the whole story from the Fall of Lucifer to the Last Judgement into under three hours.
At a few points, the text brings in contemporary references (Noah’s wife is knitting “new Leeds scarves for t’lads. Next week’s FA Cup!”). Yet in general, Harrison retains much of the alliteration, and medieval and northern dialect, of the original, along with the striking combination of horror, pathos, audience participation and broad comedy that led one scholar to describe the plays as “the most democratic thing in English literature”.
Lucifer struts around in a singlet and sits down at God’s throne with a cup of tea before being cast out to “fall to fierce fire through the whole firmament”. Cain and Abel squabble like a music hall double act until they come to blows and a blood-red cloth emerges from the latter’s belt to mark his death. The story of Abraham and Isaac, however, is almost unbearably moving, with God eventually intervening to tell Abraham that he has it lucky, since His own son will “not be spared strokes sore and sad,/But done to death upon a hill”.
And with that we are into the New Testament and some largely humorous scenes - Joseph fretting about who is the father of Mary’s child, the shepherds trying to track down a sheep stealer - before Herod, “brightest in bling”, orders a graphically staged Slaughter of the Innocents.
The shifts of tone in the second half are even more startling. Director Deborah Bruce sets the Crucifixion on a building site: four knights equipped with clipboards, hard hats and mobile phones debate the graphic details of how to nail Jesus to the Cross and complain about their workload. This is followed by the sharp poignancy of Mary mourning for her son, “That this blossom so bright/Untruly is tugged to this tree”. Yet we are soon back to comedy, as Jesus descends to Hell to release the Damned, which leads to fisticuffs with Beelzebub and Satan.
By the end, God announces that “On Earth I see sin everywhere” and begins to regret his experiment in inventing human beings. Perhaps it is time “to make an end of man’s folly”. Actors rush into the main standing area of the Globe with hurdles to separate the Saved from the Damned. An old boozer who tries to hide among the former is summarily expelled. Jesus gives separate speeches to the “blessed bairns on my right hand” and the “cursed caitiffs of Cain’s kin”. The audience emerges entertained, exhilarated and suitably chastised.