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  • Modern Mysteries: Contemporary Productions of Medieval English Cycle Dramas
  • Peter H. Greenfield
Katie Normington . Modern Mysteries: Contemporary Productions of Medieval English Cycle Dramas. Cambridge: Brewer, 2007. Pp. xiv + 192. 16 pp. of black-and-white plates between pp. 114–15. $55.00.

Performing medieval drama became increasingly popular in England in the last half of the twentieth century, culminating in a concentration of productions around the millenium. Katie Normington's Modern Mysteries explores the reasons for this popularity, asking why companies, communities, and directors have chosen to produce medieval drama. Normington does not address her book to scholars of medieval drama interested in how "authentic" a recent production was, or what modern productions can tell us about medieval theatrical practices. She instead focuses on "what the plays, often presented in very loose 'versions,' have offered to modern drama and culture" (ix).

What they have offered to modern drama, she finds, is especially the opportunity to stage plays of epic scale that ask for spectacle and strong directorial concepts. Even more important may be what these productions offer to modern culture: nearly all of them were intended to restore some of the sense of community that has been lost in a populous, diverse contemporary Britain. Scholars lament the fact that modern productions can reveal only a limited amount about how the plays were received in the Middle Ages, because modern performers and audience members do not share the values and cultural practices of the communities that originally produced the plays. It is thus somewhat ironic that one of the major themes of Normington's book is the range of ways in which modern mysteries attempt to forge a strong sense of shared community. The small Yorkshire town of Worsborough may recall medieval York or Chester in the way its plays have become an expression of local community, but producers in larger urban centers (Coventry, e.g.) and professional companies (the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company) have to construct communities from their diverse audiences.

Normington's analysis of the National Theatre's Mysteries examines how the desire to create a popular, communal theater shaped the concept director Bill Bryden and adapter Tony Harrison brought to the production. Bryden's approach was deeply affected by the politics of the '70s and '80s, reflecting a nostalgia for a time when the labor of working men and women was appreciated, before the failures of Britain's industrial regions and the coming of Margaret Thatcher. Bryden realized his vision through numerous striking directorial choices—from the Northern working-class idiom of Harrison's script, to the central use of a forklift and Welsh coalminer's lamp, to the mingling of actors and audience. Normington perceptively points out that Bryden's notion of the mysteries as the creation of medieval working people ignored the significant roles played by civic [End Page 517] and guild structures. Moreover, Bryden's 1999 production—intentionally modeled in detail on the original—seemed out of place in the very different political and social climate of the millenium. Yet there is no denying the popularity of the National Theatre's Mysteries. Where Bryden and Harrison did succeed was in finding an approach that made the plays work for a modern audience, and in creating a people's theater, replacing the community of Christian faith that no longer existed with a manufactured sense of community among actors and audience.

Normington groups that National Theatre production with Katie Mitchell's production of The Mysteries for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Millenium Mysteries at Coventry as professional productions whose directors sought to find modern equivalents for medieval Christian faith. If, for Bryden, that was nostalgia for a community of workers, for Mitchell it was altruism, and for Pawel Szkotak multiculturalism, realized through Coventry's Belgrade Theatre coproducing the plays with his Teatr Biuro Podrózy, a Polish street theater company. Chapters on the variety of playing spaces utilized for modern performances discuss productions at Chester, Lincoln, Lichfield, and especially York, where the plays have been staged in the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey, in the Theatre Royal, and in York Minster, as well as on pageant wagons wheeled through the city...