Mystery play revived in Newcastle upon Tyne

Holly Suttle as Noah's Wife

Holly Suttle as Noah’s Wife

On Friday 28th March the only surviving mystery play of the Newcastle Corpus Christi cycle, Noah’s Ark, was performed by Newcastle University students and staff in the great hall of the Newcastle’s twelfth century Castle Keep. This late-medieval biblical play – probably originally and performed each year by the Newcastle Shipwrights’ guild at the Feast of Corpus Christi – has survived in a corrupt 18th-century transcript published by the antiquarian Henry Bourne in his History of Newcastle upon Tyne; or, the Ancient and Present State of that Town (1736).

In the 15th and 16th centuries (that is, before the Protestant Reformation), such Corpus Christi plays were often performed on ‘pageant wagons’ or moving, platformed cars, drawn from place-to-place through the city streets. However, the purpose of this production – under the direction of Professor Henrike Lähnemann and Dr. Harriet Archer – was not to meticulously recreate such theatrical experience. Instead it was to make the often stodgy topics of university classroom more immediate, more comprehendible and ultimately more fun. While the alliterative verse dialogue and the high stone walls of the medieval hall reminded the audience of the play’s medieval origins, some of the quirky props and extemporaneous household scenes helped to lend the play a sense of immediateness and vitality. Audience favourites were surely Noah and his shrewish wife, comic characters whose representation here developed the farcical elements already present in the original text.

The play also made use of ingenious sound design. The duality between heaven and earth was not only represented through a hierarchical use of space – God being positioned on the gallery far above Noah and his household – but also through the use of particular wind instruments. Whereas God and angles were accompanied by dignified blasts from a trumpet, the devil’s meddling with the lives of humans was accompanied by the low, unsettling sounds of the ‘serpent’ (a bass wind instrument).

In spite of devil cursing us in the audience, the evening ended on a jolly note, with cups of small beer and short early music set by the Newcastle Waits. The afternoon both entertained and edified. Those who missed this debut performance should note that a revival is planned for International Museum Day on 18th May.

Review provided by Gasper Jakovac (Durham)

One thought on “Mystery play revived in Newcastle upon Tyne

  1. Many thanks for the review – and inspiration in staging the drama. Watch out for a second performance during the Late Shows in Newcastle, 18 May, 8pm, again in the Castle Keep.

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