The Spurriergate Centre has been a place that has welcomed community into its midst for generations, gently accepting all with a grace and equanimity. In the 16th century, the building became a repository of the treasures which should have been destroyed following the Reformation, and since that point, in one way or another, it has gathered up the rejected, the lost, the stranger and the torn apart, providing a safe haven, inclusion, restoration and healing. The origins of the former church, The Church of St Michael, go back to the 12th century, and the magnificent medieval stained glass work glows with 15th century Madonnas wearing cobalt blue couvre-chefs and snow white crespinettes, the fascinating Nine Orders of Angels, and the intriguing partial stained panel, The Tree of Jesse, with its fragments broken, removed from their original locations, re-arranged, displaced and set in new surroundings - sometimes with tiny shards of joyous colour, but more often with the ghost-like traceries of a fading existence. This is a place that has seen the first York Mystery Plays performed in its shadows, but also understands through history and usage the impacts of change, of re-invention, of having to start over; the very walls are soaked with the courage it takes to find hope in despair.
When the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust were looking for a location to perform the Nativity Cycle of the plays, they couldn’t have found a more fitting environment to tell the story of a couple faced with the challenges of leaving everything they knew and held dear, to undertake a dangerous journey, carrying their possessions on their backs and a new life in the womb, not knowing where they would end up and what the future would hold. It is the skeleton of stories repeated in every young person cast out of care or home and onto the streets; every refugee family who has escaped the bloodshed and tyranny, taking treacherous risks to find safety in an unknown place that may not welcome them; every person who has encountered the fight for integrity and truth when the evidence to others screams immorality and betrayal; every mind agonised with decisions to be taken and dreams wrenched asunder; every wise man who has stepped out of their comfort zone to pursue a quest that others would think foolish; every kind-hearted mortal who has given all they can in simple trust to help another; every global mother bound in poverty, giving birth in unsanitary conditions, helplessly suckling her rag-wrapped child at emaciated breasts.
A Nativity for York, directed by Philip Parr, is the first independent production for the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, the text drawn from the eight of the forty-eight plays that make up the Nativity Cycle, to create a performance piece that sits self-sufficient of the Waggon Plays and the Corpus Christi tradition, in the hope of becoming an annual addition to the York Christmastide calendar. Parr has adapted the speech to make it more understandable to modern hearers, whilst still retaining the rhythm, poetry and some of the Middle English northern dialect which makes the York Mystery cycle so identifiable from those of other regions. He has condensed the contents into a manageable size and added his own musical arrangements to enhance the seasonal atmosphere.
A community play in a place renowned for welcoming community needs a community cast, and A Nativity For York has put to together an excellent team drawn from all walks of life.
Chris Pomfrey, as Joseph, is every inch the bewildered and upset gentleman who grieves over the unsullied bride he thought was his, but is slowly persuaded to another viewpoint and emerges into a caring husband and father of the very best kind; no emotion is too laboured or gesture overplayed. Mary is played by Rachael Harte, no stranger to the York Mystery Plays – indeed, this is her second time playing Mary – whose tenderness and unassuming acceptance of the strange mysteries that are unfolding around her is so very touching and sweet. I watched as she gently rocked her baby on her shoulder in the manner that parents all through the ages know so well, soothed him and brought forth his face from the swaddling clothes for the shepherds to see, held the hand of an angel who proffered a lovingly knitted shawl just that moment long enough to engage fully in heartfelt appreciation, and courageously held back her fear at journeying to an unknown place. Pomfrey and Harte are so exquisitely set together as the blessed parents upon whom the rest of the storyline pivots.
Never were there three more well-chosen shepherds as Ged Murray, Michael Maybridge and Jenna Drury. The soft humour of Murray and Drury offset against Maybridge’s straight guy is a joyously delicious treat. They are comrades who know and trust each other well enough to tease, cajole and support each other in this mysterious turn of events that has touched their usually uneventful hillside. The bewildered trio, drawn by the star, present their gifts; ‘a bearing brush and bowl of tin’ placed humbly next to the child, ‘two cobnuts here upon a band’ rattled with pure pleasure for the infant, and then steps forward Maybridge with his offering,
“I have no present that may please. But lo, an horn spoon, that have I here …”
pulling a spoon from his pack that is almost as big as the child itself, adding with a serious earnestness that is melting, “And it will carry forty peas.”
What makes this little scenario all the more poignant is that, later, as Joseph gathers the small family’s possessions together to flee the border, he picks up the spoon from the table and ponders it momentarily as if considering whether it really is as effective a pea holder as its giver had proclaimed. No words are spoken, but it is a gesture that completes the circle on the shepherd’s visit.
If the shepherds are endearingly self-effacing in their expectations and adorations, the kings are in equal parts regal, learned and wise. They are superbly cast. Representing the mission of the Christ child to the wider world, Ben Turvill, Stephanie Walker and Wilma Edwards are the epitome of ambassadorial elegance and dignity, their presence, demeanour and exotic clothing immediately setting them apart from the others, and yet there is just as much a sense that they too are strangers, lost and floundering in unfamiliar territory. Their own cultures and journeys to that place are diverse, but as surely as a greeting of ‘As-Salam-u-Alaikum’ is recognised throughout many nations, there is a bond in their common purpose, status and affluence, that allows them to form an alliance in their search for the infant.
From the moment that Jodie Fletcher steps into the space to set the background to Joseph’s discomfiture, quickly followed by Lucinda Rennison and Judith Ireland’s firm protection of Mary and Val Punt’s stroppy ‘man-up' address to Joseph, it is clear that the angels in our play are not the mere fluffy-winged sky fillers of many a Christmas card. These are the agents in black, hiding in plain sight, sipping their coffee and eating their mince pies with the rest of us, but alert and informed with missional responsibilities to spring into action when needed. Fletcher, Rennison, Punt, Sally Maybridge, Lily Geering, Harold Mozley, David Denbigh, Joy Warner, Anna Briggs, Denise Oliver, Sonia Di Lorenzo, Tracey Rea, Linda James and Nick Jones carry out their assignments with individualistic characters that tip a cocked hat to the medieval hierarchy of angels but, rightly and far more stylishly, do not dwell there. They are organised, methodical, supportive and sophisticated, carrying out their duties with a flair and panache that is never gushing, never treacly and most certainly would never be considered as flapping.
The cast not only have their roles to consider, but sing and play instruments too, and full kudos must be given to them for devoting so much time, line learning and commitment during the rehearsal process. Behind any production is a team of creatives, production, front of house and technicians, who all need a shout out for bringing this wonderful piece together. There was even a chair-silencing army at work behind the scenes. They are all stars, but I do just want to make note of the costume designer. Costume design is notoriously hard to break into; Filip Gesse’s drawings for the production showed such promise and he was so enthusiastic and passionate in explaining his vision that they did him tremendous credit and I hope he goes from strength to strength.
Christmas, whether we are of faith or not, has its enchantments. The festive colour palettes; the soaring violins of Arneson’s ‘The Magnificat’ or Handel’s Messiah’; the warm homes and the tables heaving with food. But that is never the whole story. For every violin there is a cello to force its unique gift of tears, for every groaning feast there is someone without food and for every warm house there is a homeless sleeper on the wintry street, a displaced person whose heart aches for homelands that will never be theirs again, or one who lives with persecution, the fear of war and a sky that spits bombs. In every community this uneasy juxtaposition sits, and it is this that A Nativity For York leaves us with as Mary and Joseph wander on, their worldly possessions stuffed into the discarded bags of a consumerism gone mad. It is a piece originally written in a time when centralised authority had all but collapsed, there were mass migrations because of civil unrests, population overload was a serious problem and people were being forced out of their homes because of tenure laws, and it resonates across the centuries, reverberating around the walls of Spurriergate as if it were written yesterday. There is a call to arms; for each one of us to take our own position as the agents in black, just as the centre staff here have, to support, stand alongside and help those who are suffering in our communities.
Parr in his astute direction has brought to this first outing for A Nativity For York an accomplished, celebratory, but also thought-provoking production. It speaks of a kindness and sense of justice inhabiting his soul. It’s a kindness we need to hear this Christmas, every Christmas, and every precious day in-between.
This part of my site isn't about me at all.
It is about watching, observing and reading the work of others. Those who know what they are about, who have honed their crafts over many years and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.
I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.