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Drama among the ruins

A new version of The English Mystery Plays is to be staged in the beautiful setting of Monk Bretton Priory.

SOUTH Yorkshire is staging the only traditional outdoor mystery plays – considered the oldest form of popular entertainment in Western Europe – this summer anywhere in the UK.

A company of around 200 will present a new version of The English Mystery Plays in the atmospheric ruins of Monk Bretton Priory, near Barnsley, from next Monday.

The outdoor epic production is written and directed by John Kelly, who brings experience of directing the Worsbrough Mystery Plays which were performed in the village church in three year cycles from 1977 to 2004.

He admits to being sceptical when approached by the Bishop of Wakefield to create an outdoor production in the old priory until he was eventually persuade to take a look at the site now administered by English Heritage.

As a boy growing up in Grimethorpe he had passed it many times on the journey with his mother to Barnsley market but never took any notice of it. Once he stepped on to the site he immediately saw its potential. "It was my heart leading my head," he says.

"There were several problems such as no water or electricity – no basic amenities. The logistics of getting a cast and crew of 200 actors, technicians and crew and an audience of several thousand on and off the site and leaving it in the same condition sounded a staggering task."

That is more than responsibility of producer Lee Batty, however, leaving Kelly to focus on such essentials as the script and casting.

Mystery plays which date back to medieval times are based on scripture

stories but there has always been an irreverence about them which resulted in the clergy getting them moved out of the church into the churchyards and eventually into town squares and non-ecclesiastical locations.

During The Reformation they were outlawed and only four sets of mystery plays are known to have survived from the 15th century – the York, Wakefield, Chester and N-town cycles.

Kelly has taken a pick and mix approach in compiling this production. "I've welded selected stories together into one piece and also written new stuff," he explains.

As a way of linking the different stories, he has invented a character

called Bogoak to function as a narrator. "Bogoak is the glue that holds it all together," says Kelly. "He's an actor-manager who has brought along this group of strolling players and he talks a lot, berating the actors and the audience at times and they have a go at him

occasionally. Toby Foster, who I've worked with at Radio Sheffield, is perfect for the role," Kelly has been down to London to record and film Patrick Stewart for the Voice of God. "He has taken the

role extremely seriously," says the director. "He can't appear in person because, ironically, he's doing Waiting for Godot."

There are 105 speaking parts in the play and the cast is made up of a number of professionals, several experienced amdram performers from around the region, "backed up by men, women and children who have never been on stage in their lives."

In the role of Eve is his 19-year-old daughter, Grace Kelly, in her last appearance before going off to Los Angeles to study at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Art.

Kelly, whose other daughter, Katherine, plays Becky Granger on Coronation Street, is a former actor himself but spent most of his working life in psychiatric nursing and care for the elderly before taking up writing. He is writer-in-residence at Barnsley's Lamproom Theatre, having been the guiding force in bringing it into being as a facility for the town, but later in the year plans to follow his daughter out to California to further his writing.

But that's on the horizon. In the meantime: "There's something wonderful, exciting and utterly English about sitting on a still summer's eve and watching a couple of hundred performers pick their way through the ruins of an ancient monastery and the most towering drama known to mankind."

The English Mystery Plays at Monk Bretton Priory from Monday June 30 until July 11.

Mystery plays are dramas based on scriptural events, usually in the life of Jesus, but they have evolved as secular entertainments for popular consumption – they certainly aren't devised to preach or offer religious instruction.

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