‘There’s communities – what we have now – and community – what we used to have.” Thus opines a sozzled Ukip-ish councillor in Chris Thorpe’s engaging new state-of-the-nation play cycle. It’s three years since Thorpe and director Sam Pritchard set out on a road trip around England with a copy of the Wakefield Cycle of medieval mystery plays in the boot of their car. That journey – immersing themselves for months in the life of six places – has resulted in this earnest, uneven but often profound cycle of six contemporary plays. This tour has already visited each community portrayed and reaches its climax now at Manchester (population 510,746), a long stretch from Eskdale, Cumbria (population 242). With a little more development, it deserves a longer life.
This Mysteries wears its relationship to the medieval tradition lightly, although there’s a pleasing nod in the story of Eskdale’s sheep-farming community to the Wakefield Cycle’s most famous rural subplot, The Second Shepherds’ Play. Instead, this is a modern set of deftly woven secular dramas, all of which urge us to look at the modern landscape around us and ask who owns it.
The temptation to reach towards melodrama in aid of an emotive plot results in the least well developed entries. In Whitby, we learn of the suicide of a young man; in Boston, the death of a child. But in Staindrop, County Durham, a community still dependent on Raby Castle as a landlord and employer, we watch as ripples spread from a dispute in the castle gift shop: everyday interactions strip bare the fault lines of a millennium of social inequality. I was burning to know how it went down when performed in Staindrop’s Scarth Hall.
Thorpe and Pritchard have quarried local myth and language from each stop on the tour; designer Rosie Elnile has amassed a selection of talismanic objects. Thus at the start of Eskdale, the uniformly strong cast enact a sheep-shearing with equipment lent by a local farm; in Stoke-on-Trent, we enter a modern potters’ workshop scattered with local Stoke pottery. (This play’s handling of alcoholism and homelessness feels naive.) We were also treated to a handbell performance by the members of the impressive Stoke Minster Bell Ringers. After Boston there was a slightly more bemusing appearance by a duo who appeared to be Lincolnshire’s answer to Ali G. But it’s the objects on stage that really root us in locality. At the start of Whitby, a toy-sized fishing trawler is ritually set afloat on a pool of seawater drawn from Whitby harbour.
Questions about the dream or danger of Brexit hover, largely unspoken, except when the conversation turns to Whitby’s fishing industry. Thorpe and Pritchard have their eyes set on a much longer-term sweep of history.
We start with two women exploring the lines left by a Roman fort in the Eskdale landscape and end with an astonishing oration to the city of Manchester, from multicultural Roman camp to multicultural contemporary community. It is a requiem also to the 22 people killed at Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017, and an empathetic, if occasionally presumptuous, attempt to understand the life of Manchester man Salman Abedi, the bomber who took their lives with his own.
All of the six cast members have an ear for verse-speaking, and this is a rich six-part harmony. Unnerving and yet uplifting.