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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Genesis of The Passion


Scenes from a director's table...
I mentioned in my last post that The Passion was six years in the making.  The start point of the script was seeded by a rehearsed reading of various medieval mystery plays in 2006.  But perhaps it should be said to have started in 2005, when I was in a production of Two Planks and a Passion by Anthony Minghella.  Actually, it probably started even earlier, but for the moment, let's start there.
Sudbury Dramatic Society likes to throw the odd curve ball play each season - between a pantomime, a comedy / farce and the obvious greats of theatre history there will be something more modern, less well known.  Two Planks and a Passion is a play about the mystery plays, set during the reign of Richard II, who visits York with his wife to watch them.  It's broadly speaking a comedy, though leavened by the Queen who is dying (quite literally) to see the plays, with the various guilds of the city battling to show off their productions to the best.  There is a brief scene where the cast rehearse the crucifixion.  Irritatingly the scene was rewritten in a mock modernish version of the original text and wasn't anything like the original script of a mystery play.  However, there was a bit of a spark for me to delve a little deeper into the mystery plays.  But what is a mystery play, I hear you ask?
Here's the history bit, concentrate:  what we tend to call the mystery plays were almost certainly never called mystery plays, except by the French, so it doesn't count.  Like most things in history the plays got a label by future people that had no real connection with the thing they supposed to describe.  We think of the mystery plays as being about the mysteries of Christianity - it fits well - except that it probably derives from a term for the guilds of the city, or from the French, or from any old thing, and was almost certainly never used to describe the plays themselves.
The history of modern English / European theatre was kick started in the church from the 11th Century as an increasingly dramatised version of part of the liturgy - specifically the Easter liturgy and the approach of the three Mary's to the tomb of Jesus who meet an Angel who tell them he has risen.  It isn't until the creation of a new festival, Corpus Christi, in the 14th Century that the creation of extensive cycles of plays based on the Bible began to be staged.  By this time the drama had left the church and was in the hands of the trade guilds of the various cities that staged plays.  The plays would cover an episode from the Bible, (the fall of man, Noah, the end of the world etc) and could collectively cover the whole history of the universe, from creation to destruction, played back to back over the course of a whole day, several days, or more piecemeal over the years.  The Corpus Christi Plays (as we more properly should probably call them) were major civic events that ran most years for a good two hundred years in different forms.  It wasn't until the break from Rome that the tradition was killed off and professional playing took over, leading to the theatre world that Shakespeare came to bustle in.
The texts we have are mostly from four cycles of plays, in differing states of completion, from four different towns, though there is debate as to which.  For my version I've culled bits from all four, choosing a fairly orthodox selection of episodes for the bulk of the play, with a few bits that the hardcore fans (if there are such a thing) will find interesting.
But this isn't the first time I've edited some 'mystery' plays.  In 2006 I put together a reading of plays that covered the nativity for, appropriately enough, Christmas.  It was a nice 90 minute show, covering the Annunciation through to the death of Herod.  It was my first real taste of the medieval scene and I couldn't get enough of it.  I loved the texture of the words, the roughness, the sound of it all.  These were plays written for ordinary people to perform, not actors, not professionals - they have an earnest power to them that I loved.
Wind on a few years and I had the idea of doing a grand extravaganza; doing, if not a whole day of 'mystery' plays, then a two part version over a couple of weeks, ending with a gala night at the end to fit the gap between the Jubilee and the Olympics.  This idea was taken up by SDS and I prepared a two part play, each act covering part of the life of Jesus - Nativity, Betrayal, Passion & Resurrection.  Nativity was easy, I'd done that one before, but the others took much longer - the script evolved over a good two years.  Sadly, this two week plan had to be pulled for a series of dull and tedious reasons, and what would have been The Sudbury Mysteries became The Passion last year.  What we're rehearsing now covers Betrayal and Passion as written in my original draft, with a reworked Prologue and Epilogue covering Nativity and Resurrection. 
That's the outline of how I got to edit together the text of The Passion, and why this show has come about.  We're just entering week three of rehearsals and my next blog will tell the tale of week two - which covers the last of the blocking.  The first brush strokes have been thrown onto the canvas.  From now on I'm working on the detail.

Sudbury Dramatic Society Presents...
The Passion
Based on the English Medieval Mystery Plays
Adapted and directed by Robert Crighton

Before Shakespeare there were the mysteries, the first great dramas ever produced in English.  The original mystery plays were based on stories from the Bible, telling the story of the world from the creation through to doomsday and written to be performed on city streets over the course of a whole day.  This specially prepared version tells of the life of Christ focusing on his betrayal and what follows.  A powerful story told for all peoples, involving storytelling, music, drama and a community company open to all comers.

Performing Tuesday 10th to Saturday 14th July at 7.45pm
The Quay Theatre, Quay Lane, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 2AN
Box Office: 01787 374 745

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