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Review of the Mystery Play 2019

Beholding the Man – the Malvern Mystery Play

History, Poetry, Politics, Faith and the timeless story of God’s love for humanity were interwoven in a vivid and thrilling retelling of the Biblical history of the world in the recent Mystery Play at Great Malvern Priory.

Written and directed by Rob Swinton, who drew on texts including the medieval Townley Mystery play cycle by the ‘Wakefield Master’, and with original music composed and directed by Piers Maxim, the play was performed by a strong cast of professional actors as well as amateurs from across the local community. The west end of the Priory was transformed into a stage with the utilitarian scaffold-set stark against the rich blue of a painted backdrop emblazoned with “Ecce Homo” – Behold the Man.

And over two hours, behold Him we did. God’s opening words, spoken before time began, were in Latin, immediately taking us back to the medieval origins of the play. The striking use of language hit me from the start: “I am Maker Unmade” said the Creator God as the formation of the universe began. His creation of Adam and Eve brilliantly echoed the almost-touching fingers of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, as used in the play’s publicity.

Superbly paced, the narrative moved quickly from scene to scene. The modern dress costumes were dramatically utilised: Lucifer and Herod in sharp suits, shepherds in anoraks and fingerless gloves, the soldiers of the crucifixion in hard hats and hi-vis jackets. One of the most moving moments (amid many) was the portrayal of the incarnation, when God the Father removed his golden robe to become the jeans and shirt-wearing Jesus: – God becoming man before our eyes.

Lucifer, played by Ali Belbin, was a whirlwind of doubt-placing, double-speak, lying and manipulating her way through the story until meeting her match in Jesus. The resonances with today’s fake news and mis-information were chillingly real. In contrast, Darren Cheek’s Jesus was a charismatic figure of wise compassion, justice, strength and love, transforming the lives of all who encountered him. Here was a man you could see yourself following to the ends of the earth.

The live music, played and sung by musicians and singers, many from the Priory, added beautifully to the atmosphere of each part of the story. Dissonant, menacing chords and gongs evoked the dark drama of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven, while an exquisite melody on solo violin was played during Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane and the first half was concluded by a stunning choral Agnus Dei.

Andrew Law’s Herod was a terrifying despot, laughing maniacally as his henchmen commit the Massacre of the Innocents. Jenny Cromwell’s (Killam’s) Angel breathed serenity. Bob Joyce (Payne) as Annas clung on to power with increasing desperation. A humorous highlight came from the Yorkshire Shepherds, a trio of politically sharp, relationship philosophers, bickering with one another as they sat shivering on the moor. The familiar British setting was evoked in speech: Adam was Geordie and Lazarus Liverpudlian, while Alistair Sawers’ troubled Pilate was, of course, Scottish! The crucifixion was sensitively portrayed; the horror contrasting with the simple moment of Mary’s recognition of her Lord. Many of the actors played multiple parts and this was used to great effect by David Hopper playing both Adam and Judas. When, at the end Jesus embraces a sorrowful Judas, he also embraces Adam; bringing forgiveness and redemption for one man and all humanity in a beautiful expression of God’s love.

Unmissable and unforgettable. Thank you to everyone who made it happen!

Katherine Little

We are grateful to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Elmley Foundation, the Gladiator Trust and the Bransford Trust for sponsoring this production.