Our Chairman, Paul Maddocks, calls for the return of the Coventry Mystery Plays.
I see in the press that Chester Cathedral has recently completed a programme of the Chester Mystery Plays. These plays are only performed every five years and they are always well received.
Coventry Cathedral used to have its own series of Mystery Plays, that were performed every three years up until 2006. I was fortunate to be able to perform in the last two productions in 2003 and 2006.
The Coventry Mystery Plays date back to the early Medieval Mystery Plays which were perhaps best known as the source of the Coventry Carol. Performances of the Coventry plays are first recorded in a document of 1392–3. It is very likely that the young Will Shakespeare saw them as he quotes from the Mystery Plays in some of his own plays with scenes and events from them. Various Coventry Trade Guilds would put on small plays on mobile stages around the city. The plays were mostly taken from scenes from the Bible. Each Guild would perform a scene while the other guilds were changing in preparation for the scene that they would perform. Unfortunately few records of the plays now exist but the Shearmen Guild and Tailors’ Guild plays were transcribed and published by Thomas Sharp and most recent performances are loosely based on these plays, from Adam and Eve to Noah’s Ark then Annunciation, Nativity, Massacre of the Innocents to Christ’s Crucifixion.
They were very popular with the citizens of Coventry and Warwickshire, although they often got to be a bit political and they would parody local dignitaries and like pantomime they would add local issues and gossip.
After the Second World War the Cathedral started to perform the Mysteries on a small budget.
I had seen the Coventry Mysteries a few times over the years. I went with my wife to see the 2000 Millennium production which was performed by the Teatr Biuro Podróży (Travel Agency Theatre), an award-winning theatre company based in Poland. I was amazed that they created and performed a large-scale, outdoor theatre show, in the ruins of the old Cathedral with stilt walkers as the Three Wise Men riding a Ostrich, a turtle and other strange animals plus many other special effects including ‘death’ who was very scary.
In 2003 I volunteered to be in the new production that was planned. I had got hooked by the last one. So along with many other local community people we had great fun. You got to see the production grow from the first rehearsals in Drapers Hall to the full performance in the ruins. There were a lot of amazing props including two of each animal on long poles, who would do a dance routine before going into the Noah’s Ark. I was one of the carriers of the giant wooden ribs for the Ark; it took two men to carry each rib,with about sixteen of us all together. We would move them around creating boats shapes and cathedral shapes; we were all dressed like peasants from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
So in 2006 I was very pleased to be involved in another performance. This one was bigger and more extravagant. There was a large water feature down the middle of the Cathedral ruins. A waterfall and stage at one end and a large stairway to Heaven at the other. This time I got to say a few words and was one of the Disciples. I sat at the Last Supper and at the end had to stand in the water, getting my trousers and pumps wet. The water feature was made by a Coventry based Aerospace company for free. It had a rail system down the middle to take the launch of the large Noah’s Ark with animals on it that came out from under the stairway stage end. Each production had professional actors who said most of the lines and took the lead parts. But because it was a mixture of both professionals and amateurs, we could not get copies of any photos or filming of the productions as the Actor’s Union was very strict about copyright and performance payments. So not many photos or videos exist of the production, only these below, unless anyone knows more?
The name Mysteries has been a bit hijacked over the years, with Coventry University setting up a festival based event which had various students and voluntary groups putting on performances and plays but had nothing to do with the Bible stories.
It would be nice to have the Coventry Mystery Plays back! Maybe a bit like the Chester Cathedral performances, not too expensive. How about putting on a special for Coventry City of Culture 2021?
Scenes from Chester Cathedral- Noah’s arch and Christ’s Crucifixion
Paul Maddocks, Chairman of the Coventry Society