Electrifying retelling of Bible stories. The Mysteries

It's the talk of the current London theater season. And rightly so. ``The Mysteries'' is a pastiche of playlets put together in the country provinces of England over 600 years ago. In earthy poetic style it recounts the story of the world, from the Creation through to Judgment Day.

The plot is hardly new. But this present offering, staged so brilliantly at the Lyceum by London's prestigious National Theatre ensemble, gives the age-old narrative astonishing impact. Indeed, British critics are calling it one of the most electrifying pieces of theater to hit the London stage in over a decade.

The word mystery in medieval English means ``craft'' or ``trade.'' In 14th-century England it was the custom of provincial craft guilds to join forces annually to provide community entertainment, the staple fare being the dramatic retelling of Biblical tales. Local wordsmiths devised the text; local folk, as befitted their trade, played the various parts and provided the props -- e.g. the nailmakers' guild did the Crucifixion, the bakers' guild the Last Supper -- while onlookers joined in the performances as much as they passively watched. It was a blend of pagan and early Christian ritual, and the purpose of the event was to make mirth as well as to instruct.

The texts, along with many additions, were handed down year after year and performed countrywide. Only those originating from York, Chester, Wakefield, and Coventry, however, have survived. Named after their origins, they are known today simply as ``The Mysteries.''

Eight years ago Bill Bryden, one of the National Theatre's resident directors, conceived the idea of staging a revival. In collaboration with poet Tony Harris, who has gently reworked some of the medieval language, the first effort, ``The Nativity'' -- starting from The Beginning and finishing with the birth of Jesus -- was mounted in 1977. The second, ``The Passion,'' extending the story through the crucifixion, appeared in 1980. Now the triptych epic is complete with ``Doomsday,'' which takes up the narrative from the resurrection and ascension. Another development has been to put the three plays together, for greatest effect, into a once-a-week all-day showing (strongly recommended), starting midmorning and reaching the Final Judgment long after high tea.

The medieval mood is set well before any action begins. Swathed in soupy mist with a myriad of flickering braziers overhead, the theater's air is thick with Gothic gloom. Then there's the layout. No stage. You walk in, instead, to a bare floor, where the audience mills around before the appointed hour. Actors join in -- to chat and prepare the crowd generally for the informality of what's to come. Theatergoers can choose either to stay there and be part of the play, as promenaders, with the action unfolding all around them, or look down from the seated galleries above.

A country jig signals the performance is about to start. A marvelously versatile folk-rock band strikes a lively chord, and the actors lead the promenaders in a happy hoedown (this happens during the course of the production and works beautifully).

The crowd parts. The houselights fade.

God appears. A plain-speaking, stocky figure in hempen cloak (later exchanged for a flat cap and suspendered breeches), He stands high on a forklift and creates, far below, Earth and man.

And it's here the audience gets the first inklings of the formidable ingenuity that's gone into ``The Mysteries.'' This is no irreverent lark. Quite the contrary. Director Bryden has worked hard to transpose the original tone of this medieval pageant into a contemporary setting. In so doing, he's been able to create multilevels of drama which have the unmistakable ring of truth. The actors play two roles at once: that of modern-day country folk, as well as modern-day country folk acting as actors. There is a solemn reverence for their spiritual task -- much as 14th-century country merchants, laborers, and artisans surely had -- along with a naturalistic expression of being part of a community in mid-celebration. The two levels meld together with total conviction.

But more than that, the ancient parables come to life. The simple verse, rich with Chaucerian rhythm and alliteration and spoken in broad Yorkshire dialect (a far cry indeed from the Queen's English), gives the Biblical characters flesh and blood. And humor.

The ancient stories are enacted devoid of awe -- yet awesome quite often is the effect. When a reluctant Abraham puts his bewildered but acquiescing son, Isaac, on a butcher's block, the emotions, so directly expressed, suddenly make religious sacrifice painfully real.

Noah is portrayed as a poor yeoman with a querulous wife who can't for the life of her understand where her husband's gone off to when there's so much work to be done. When he returns with God's long-range weather report, Mrs. Noah nags him unceasingly. But he remains steadfast to his bond with God, and an enormous ark takes shape before our eyes. It is constructed from wood planking and umbrellas, and its builders instantly transmogrify into a huddle of animals.

There are many high points in this endlessly inventive production. Indeed, at the heart of this tour de force lies a superbly judged blend of the simple and the spectacular. Both are pushed to their outermost limits. Never beyond. As Jesus is baptized by John, the two men stand waist-deep in the middle of a huge blue tarp, which breathtakingly transforms into the River Jordan when undulated by some promenaders.

The story of the Final Judgment, in contrast, is told with the aid of an eery limbo, elaborately constructed and enormous in size, which revolves while members of the cast dangle inside, jerking and writhing in torment. The dead rise up through the floorboards and pad sheepishly to their assigned places: the good on the right side of God, the wicked on the left. The devil's disciples (played ostensibly by the sewage cleaners' guild) make forays from a murky subterranean world, drawing sinners -- including some from among the promenaders -- into the seething maw of hell.

The total effect is stunning

To re-create a medieval religious pageant with such richness and power for modern audiences was a daunting task. But this talented ensemble has done it. The result is, without question, a major achievement. 30{et

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