I was introduced to the work of Tony Harrison whilst at secondary school in Leeds (the same secondary school who provided the choir for Harrison’s film Black Daisies for the Bride – and which sat opposite High Royds the setting for the film as well as a song by the Kaiser chiefs!). Whilst ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ was – and possibly still is – beyond me ‘Them and Uz’ struck an immediate chord. In it Harrison recalls being chastised for talking in a Yorkshire accent by an English teacher who failed to recognise – as the poem goes on to point out that Wordsworth’s matter and water are full rhymes.
My Oxford born,convent schooled mum would correct us when we dropped into northern dialect. ‘Theres a H in front of _____’was a familiar cry. But I was desperate to sound like everyone else and now here was a poet and a scholar arguing our case. I was hooked!
And then I found out TH wrote for the theatre. I was already a theatre fiend (I put down my A Level failure to the excess hours spent not in Leeds’ bars but its newly opened West Yorkshire Playhouse). Naturally I devoured The Mysteries, Trackers and the like.
One of my favourite books was an early Bloodaxe hardback of TH’s Dramatic Verse 1973-1985. Bow Down, The Big H and Medea – Sex War Opera thrilled with their lingual virtousity (I was I admit a weird teenager – my single act of rebellion was to stop reading the family newspaper The Guardian and shift to the Independent..I now read both!)
And it didn’t stop there. It was about this time I shuffled along to the now long gone Civic Theatre and sat openmouthed amongst an audience of 10 as Volcano Theatre Company powered (and I mean powered) through their version of V.
V is TH’s epic poem set in the Leeds I grew up in. Its central image of an angry, disenfranchised youth spray painting others property (in this case the Harrison family tomb stone) perfectly caught the period and listening to it now it once again feels eerily relevant. And not just because of the line:-
‘and left the ground where Leeds United play
but disappoint their fans week after week
which makes them loose their sense of self esteem’
So all in all you could say I was a Harrison groupie (if poets have such a thing).
To the point. A couple of years ago I’d dragged JP of to Fran at the National Theatre.
It was a huge disappointment.
Long, turgid and seemingly undramatic I couldn’t even bring myself to mount a defense when JP rightly tore into the play on the way home.
I’d been too young to catch the original cycle that Harrison had adapted back in 1977 (I was 4) though I had seen the Nativity much later in a production done by (I think) the Unity Theatre. I still remember the moment as Herod’s guards ran behind the audience striking scaff bars creating such a terrifying din it put the fear of God into me.
In The Globe Mysteries Herod is much truncated. Perhaps TH was bored of him as a character. After all he took up several pages in his 77 version and that was rapidly followed in 1984 by The TV play ‘The Big H’ which is a kind of precursor to V. It fascinated me too because it mentioned my home town:-
‘Step forward, 8, and tell me the once infested spots
You’ve made entirely free, for me, of toddlers and tots
Harrogate, Haywood, headingley
the whole of Humberside
Horsforth and Holbeck
Heckmondwick, Helmsley and Haxby
and Halifax, Hunslet and Hull
and how many?
Hundreds and Hundreds’
More likely though the pressures of time were at work in The Globe Mysteries. What were three plays Nativity,Passion and Doomsday have here been squeezed into one fast moving 3 hr piece.
That characteristic dialect is all there (with a mix of Yorkshire and NE accents). Its the rhythm of the work that drives the piece. Like most ofTH’s work it is both beautifully simple and incredibly complex. Some of the text was – at first hearing – beyond me. Part of me wants to return and sit in the higher echelons of the Globe and just let those words wash over me again.
But as wonderful as that would be in many ways it would miss the point. Both the text and the Globe setting allows the director – Deborah Bruce – the freedom to create a wonderfully imaginative and bawdy environment.
Much of the tone is set by Paul Hunter (of Told by an Idiot) who gets to play the villans of the piece. His knowing nods to the audience are more cheeky chappy than hard nosed evil.
You can sense some of the audience struggling with this – surely the Globe should be taking the story more seriously? You can’t help but laugh at the childish Herod (played by Hunter) cooped up in his shed surrounded by the bodies of hundreds of babies.
But its when we reach the crucifixion that the production and its grotesque humour make its real impact. Strung up, bloody, in agony and virtually delirious Jesus is surrounded by workmen whose humour – like the grave diggers in Hamlet – is base. The contrast serves to make the scene all the more violent, cruel and affecting. One moment in particular is telling. A workman in striking the nails through Jesus’ hands hits his own thumb and leaps about in agony – the foreman (Hunter again) wobbles on with a first aid kit. You laugh but seconds later – like a sucker punch – the horror of what you are laughing at strikes you.
The production abounds with such neat touches. The angels monk robes are adorned with simple painted wings, Gabriel wears a prefect badge. God -in a cardigan – sips on tea whilst Lucifer reels in Eve quite literally as a rope doubles as the snake.
Throughout their are nods to the history of the mystery plays. Its played in contemporary dress just as the original would have been. Mary is played by two contrasting performers – (one black, one white) – disconcerting at first but a reminder of how the original cycles would have been performed by many different groups with roles being taken by differing performers. It also allowed for one of the productions many truly beautiful moments – an aging Mary in a home passes quietly away, her younger self reunited with her son on the Globe’s balcony which served for God’s throne cum armchair.
As I leave the Globe I find myself thinking about current thinking about the arts. Leadbetter talks about doing things ‘with’ and audience – not ‘to’ an audience. The impact of social media means we all want to be part of something not just a passive observer. Whats startlingly obvious in The Globe Mysteries is this is nothing new! Arguably the Mystery Plays were an early version of what we might now call the community play – but more than that – with the audience visable at all times, with performers acknowledging us every step of the way it was difficult not to feel part of the action. And at many points we were -:- as groundlings we tried (and failed) to stop Herod’s henchmen , we parted to watch Jesus carry his cross (and our mixed reactions of horror to humour were all part of the effect) and ultimately in Doomsday we were divided into the saved and the dammed. For the record, like the drunk nun, I was dammed.
Ultimately it is the language, the production,the Globe setting and the mystery play style which so draw me in so much so that I quite literally feel part of the action. And I didn’t tweet once…too busy being part of the moment.