University of York: Sustainability a key theme at this year’s Mystery Plays

For the next fortnight over 400 volunteers will come together to tell eight stories on pageant wagons that move between stations across the city, culminating at the University of York’s King’s Manor.

The plays will be performed on Sundays and Wednesdays starting Sunday 19 June.

York’s famous Mystery Plays were first performed in medieval times. Though the tradition was lost during the Reformation, The York Festival Trust revived the performances in the 90s and stages them every four years.

Fresh approach

This year Artistic Director, The University of York’s Tom Straszewski, has come up with a fresh approach and a focus on sustainability.

Mr Straszewski, a PhD researcher in the Department of Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media, said: “Our theme for 2022 is sustainability and we have considered the environmental angle by avoiding or reducing certain materials, and also the ways that we can ensure we sustain the tradition in the future.

“In their current form, the Mystery Plays have been running for 24 years and we want to ensure we inspire the next generation.

“We are performing plays about handing on ideas or traditions, finding medieval precedents, and linking these to modern concerns in York such as flooding and climate change.

“In the case of the Three Kings, one does not want to pass over his power and wants to support himself. We see similar examples of the pursuit and preservation of power around the world in modern times too.”

Historic connections

Mr Straszewski first performed on a wagon in 2008 and directed one of the plays in 2014 before becoming artistic director in 2018. He is tasked with building on the success of the last production, selecting from 48 surviving scripts and working them around the theme of sustainability.

The plays recount Bible stories, with different Guilds, companies and groups of the city performing different plays. Mr Straszewski works to match the right groups to appropriate plays, based on topic, number of performers and in some cases historic connections.

The Butchers Guild traditionally performs The Crucifixion because of the amount of blood involved. In medieval times that play would have been performed by butchers.

The University’s Centre for Medieval Studies is represented by its medieval theatre company, the Lords of Misrule, who will perform the Baker’s Play of the Last Supper.

Since the original source material for this pageant is significantly damaged, the Lords of Misrule have also ‘rebuilt’ the missing text, using their experience in adapting medieval theatre plays. The Baker’s Play will incorporate material from other medieval play cycles from elsewhere in England, as well as the Biblical and medieval accounts of the Last Supper.

The director of The Last Supper, is Emily Hansen who has a PhD from the University and is a member of the Department of History.

Local communities

Mr Straszewski is a professional director and PhD researcher in the Department of Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media. His work explores how theatre-makers use their sites and venues to shine a light on the concerns of local communities.

He grew up outside York and believes the city is a fascinating backdrop for these performances.

He added: “In York we have such mixed architecture, with medieval, Georgian, Victorian and modern buildings. In previous years, groups have interacted with the buildings in York, for example, they’ve used the old city walls to represent Jerusalem’s walls, or one of our churches was recreated on the wagon, effectively touring that church around the city.”

“Our players’ work reflects this with some recreating a medieval play, others drawing inspiration from the city’s history, and others creating very modern productions. I’m very proud to be a part of these productions and excited to watch them unfold over the next fortnight.”