Lincoln Mystery Plays go on tour

For the first time, the Lincoln Mystery Plays are coming to a pew near you – touring Louth, Sleaford, Horncastle and Gainsborough in August.

Mystery plays director Tom Straszewski.
Mystery plays director Tom Straszewski.

This follows a week of outdoor performances at Lincoln Cathedral in July.

Originating 800 years ago as a celebration of faith and an exploration in the subtleties of conscience and morality, the plays bring to life the historic telling of familiar Bible episodes through mirth, merriment, musicality and mayhem.

Performances are at: Lincoln Cathedral, outdoors on the Dean’s Green, July 25 to 30, 7.30pm. Gates open 6.45pm for picnics. Bring own chair; St Mary’s Church Horncastle – August 2, 7.30pm. Doors open 7pm; St Denys’ Church, Sleaford – August 3, 7.30pm. Doors open 7pm; St James’ Church, Louth – August 4, 7.30pm. Doors open 7pm; All Saints Church, Gainsborough – August 5 and 6, 7.30pm. Doors open 7pm. Tickets £12 and £15. For tickets visit www.lincolnmysteries.co.uk or contact venues.

Lincoln Mystery Plays will be touring venues around the county.

Director, Tom Straszewski, described the relevance of the plays: “As we move out of the pandemic, we’re telling the story of a community coming together once more. With devils, angels, saints and sinners all arguing what the new world should be like, they don’t find it easy. But there’s nothing like a play to bring us together.

“The medieval texts used by Lincoln are deeply concerned with truth-telling, trials and shaping stories. This speaks loudly at a time when truth feels unstable, politicians lie for power and everybody has their own story to tell. We see how Mary sticks to her truth in the face of injustice, from toddlerhood through to old age, while mighty kings and ministers lie to maintain their power. People will find a story that speaks to their own life and they’ll also find familiarity.”

In adapting the plays from their origins as a day-long medieval festival, Tom has kept in some favourites and focused on Mary.

He said: “The entire sense of Mystery Plays, stretching back to their origins, is that these are normal people taking on roles to entertain and impress. I think we can see ourselves in these characters and something of our own lives.

In rehearsals.

“We still argue over what’s the right thing to do. What to do if your neighbour’s drowning - even if you can’t stand them? How to handle an unplanned pregnancy. Haven’t we all been gossiped about, or lied about, or faced up to injustice in society when you know they’re wrong and you’re right?

“I am an advocate of community theatre as a way to tell the stories that are important to us, and to build friendships, skills and memories that endure long after the final bow.

“Sometimes it gets a bit too close to contemporary life - I had to rewrite the final scene as it started to resemble current affairs in a way that was more vicious than it warranted.”

He brings fresh approaches too: “What struck me in the original plays was a recurring symbol of a tree – the tree of knowledge, the family tree of Jesus, the cross. Since we’re on tour, we can’t do a big set. So, we’re using ladders to form the tree and the set. Ladders are familiar, timeless and they’re wonderfully adaptable. Ours become a stable, Noah’s ark, a hellmouth, even - briefly - a ladder again.

And because it’s a community gathering, we’re keeping the costumes in the modern day. We’re not saying that the play takes place today, but that the stories we’re telling are still relevant now.”

He said Lincoln’s plays and the medieval N-Town Plays they are based on, are a bit rowdier than the York cycle he is used to, so he has enjoyed bringing out that liveliness.

“As we’re touring, I’m very keen to emphasise that these are Lincolnshire’s Mystery Plays, not just Lincoln’s. There’s a Lincolnshire poacher, locational reference, a smattering of Tennyson, and you may recognise some of the Devil’s favourite places.

“When I first started on the script, we were in the aftermath of elections where, to put it bluntly, some big promises were made without much hope of fulfilling them. Truth, power and lies was how I thought about the play.

“And I don’t think much has changed - fake news, empty promises and blatant lies are still part of politics. Maybe more so in the last month, as the Government topples.

“The pandemic has also changed things. What happens when your country’s falling apart and you have to decide whether to resist or roll over? Do you sacrifice one life to save others, or is it everybody for themselves?”

Tom also explained the number of Jesus characters: “In keeping with the original plays, we see Jesus played by lots of different people – nine at some point in this play, almost half the cast. This is a call-back to the medieval plays, where casts would have shifted and changed from one episode to another. Each actor brings something new to the portrayal.”

By touring they are making the plays more physically accessible. The sentence structure is made easier for modern audiences to understand. I’m deaf, we have deaf members of the cast, and we’re having a signed performance on July 30, as a way to open up the plays further. Also, the script will be available in advance on the website, so people can download and follow it.” Visit: www.lincolnmysteries.co.uk