Saturday night was a glorious evening. So why did so many stay indoors hunched up on their sofas in front of Britain’s Got Talent? Instead, I headed down to the main gates of Queen’s and joined a bunch of other folk all eying each other up and wondering whether they were here for the Belfast Mystery Players’ first performance ... If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
Many churches still mark Christmas with a service of nine lessons and carols, taking a brisk run through the Christmas story. Mystery plays take that a stage further, and race through the Bible from cover to cover, selecting episodes here and there to knit the narrative together. Regular readers will recall an earlier post mentioning the event and the explanation:
[Mystery] plays originated as simple tropes, verbal embellishments of liturgical texts, and slowly became more elaborate. As these liturgical dramas increased in popularity, vernacular forms emerged, as traveling [sic] companies of actors and theatrical productions organised by local communities became more common in the later Middle Ages. (source: Wikipedia!)
You can read a longer essay on the development of medieval mystery, miracle and morality plays for even better background.
Students from the Medieval MA course at QUB had been inspired by their reading and translation of medieval mystery plays, and decided to put on their own. Different students wrote each play in the cycle, and Drama students were auditioned to help with the acting. With an underwhelming lack of interest from male students some key traditional roles ended up being played by women! But that didn’t matter.
- Creation of the Universe
- Creation of Adam & Eve
- Fall of Man
- Joseph’s Trouble with Mary
There was a contemporary feel to many of the plays, with Lucifer’s fall being likened to an Apprentice’s fall from favour with Sir Alan Sugar. Starting out at the front gate, the action moved in towards the university quad behind the Lanyon Building, allowing Adam and Eve to emerge from the flower bed wearing their white dressing gowns.
Perhaps the most gripping story was the Fall of Man. There was something visually eye catching with the bottles of lurid blue WKD strewn across the perfect green lawn leading up to the tree in the centre. And something canny about the way Lucifer could charm his way into Eve’s head. Acquainted with the forbidden fruit, Eve emerged from her dazzling bath robe into an altogether more grown-up little black dress. Adam – who in this version was played as if he had lost a frontal lobe rather than a rib – got one of the best laughs of the night when he observed:
“Eve! You look really different”
Joseph’s trouble was with the wee slip of a girl Mary whose companion (mother?) was more West Belfast than West Bank. But after much eating of pink wafers and listening to Gabriel, Joseph had a change of heart.
The Expositors linked together the stories, moving the audience around and thinking out loud between stories. Their dialogue was new, and not adapted from medieval originals, and added to the mystery and thought-provoking-ness of the performance. Lines like:
Expositor 1: “You said I’d find joy in that. Where was the joy in that little scene?”
Expositor 2: “The joy, is in the sorrow ... Without sorrow, there can be no joy. Without man’s fall, he cannot be redeemed. Well he could, but it would mean nothing. The joy is in the sorrow.”
And it’s one of the Expositor’s lines that has been stuck in my head since Saturday evening. Right at the end, post Nativity (complete with “friendly beasts” that included an inflatable penguin and sad looking Eeyore), they explain:
“... and so is born the Son of Man, who’s doomed to save us all ...”
Doomed. A word that suggests finality, despair, out of control. Intentional, but not positively so. Not deliberately, or longingly. The tendency for the plays to stray from the “traditional” wording is one of their strengths, trying out new angles and meanings, making room for reappraising the situations and revalidating what they’re about. Making the audience think and react. They don’t have to be conventional to be good. They’re not doomed!
Forty five minutes after the start, the final song ended and it was all over. Most in the audience seemed to be wanting more. Some extra scenes had been written – including the Passion – but not rehearsed, so hopefully there’ll be a fuller version next year.
It was a brilliant performance. Something that Belfast Festival or Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival should be proud to present - modern drama told against a backdrop of real buildings. A real shame that students’ creative and dramatic talents don’t get more frequent outings in public. A superb evening, and hats off to all involved.
(Lots more photos from Saturday evening on Flickr.)