Directing the Mystery Plays 1978-2000

The following is taken from the programme for our spectacular Millennium production of the Mystery Plays in 2000. It was written by Keith Ramsay who very much inspired the creation of the Lincoln Mystery Plays Company and was Artistic Director from 1978-2000.

Keith’s successors have built on the fine tradition which he established, while developing the plays in many new and exciting directions.

Standing in the Nave of Lincoln Cathedral after my 1976 production of the seventeenth century Oberufer Plays, a Bishop Grosseteste College production, the then Chancellor of the Cathedral came up to me and simply said: “Why don’t you do our plays, Keith?” That was the start of twenty-two years of directing the Lincoln Mystery Plays. At that time, it was widely thought that the N-Town text was, in fact, Lincoln’s missing cycle of Mystery Plays. We know now that N-Town is an East Midlands touring text belonging to Bury St Edmunds or some similar centre of civilisation in the fifteenth century. We have given N-Town a home in Lincoln, as John Harris writes in his book “Medieval Plays at Lincoln”.

I don’t claim to have staged the first Post-Reformation production of these plays. There was Margaret Birkett’s pioneering production in Grantham in 1967 and Clare Veneables Theatre Royal production in the Cathedral in 1970, but we revived the plays on a regular basis.

I believe I now have the doubtful distinction of having directed more full-scale productions of the of the Mystery Plays than anyone else. My wife describes me as obsessed. I suppose I am.

My first major production was in 1978. I had managed to persuade Rex Davis, our Sub-Dean, to Chair our planning committee. His dynamism fueled the two first productions (78 and 81). Without him there would have been no Mystery Plays in Lincoln. The Company owe him much. The 1978 production was set under the Central tower. This is a very dramatic spot, visually overwhelming but, alas, the spoken work goes straight up the tower. So, much of the dialogue was missed. However, the production played to good houses for a fortnight and was generally thought a success.

Fired by this success, I tentatively proposed that the 1981 production should be in the original medieval setting, namely, outside the West Front. To my surprise and joy, Rex thought this an excellent idea. We had the road blocked off and a thousand seater rake erected. The show hit one of the coldest ends to June on record. We only had a fullish house on the last two nights. The weather had improved. This was possibly my most ambitious production after this present one. The acting area was too big. The early plays especially lacked the intimacy so required of medieval drama. However, as in 1978, we had the late Nigel Clarke as our lighting designer. Nigel was a genius with light. If he had lived beyond his thirties, he would have been one of Britains’ leading lighting designers. Nigel’s lighting made my production look much better than it, in fact, was. His lighting of the Crucifixion, Resurrection sequence was exquisite. I understand the late Bishop Riches would pass by each night to see this section of the plays. The photographs the young Gus de Cozer took of the concluding plays were the reason that the show started on a series of Continental tours. I took the slides to Leuven University to an international conference on medieval drama. Armed with Gus’s slides, I managed to impress enough academics to be given an invitation to take a small-scale production to the 3rd International Colloquium on Medieval Drama where we were a sort of up-market cabaret – a suitable end to a day of erudite lectures. The Colloquium was held in Viterbo, a medieval town in central Italy. Fifteen lecturers and students from Bishop Grosseteste College set out in two mini buses for Italy. We stopped a few days in Neustadt, Lincoln’s twin town in Germany, and performed in the courtyard of the Rathaus. Our arrival in Viterbo was low key. Our hotel seemed to be doubling as a bordello. God (Jack Jones) advised the girls to lock their bedroom doors and not to sit on the lavatory seats. The night of the performance the heavens opened at 6.00pm Our production was alfresco. However, by 9.30 the skies were a dark blue, swallows were cutting across the courtyard. God stood high above the audience at the top fo a medieval stairway. The sound of John Bannister’s small group of girls singing the Sanctus echoed up into the Italian night. Two tears glinted from under God’s gold mask. I thought that this would be a night to remember. And so it turned out to be. The next day, we felt like pop stars. I have not been hugged by so many Italian ladies since.

The outcome of this production was an invitation to take the production to Rome for Easter 1984, to an international festival of sacred drama. It was held in Holy Week in Holy Year and was a first. Drama had not previously been sanctioned by the Pope during Holy Week. Three young ladies watching the Crucifixion scene on Good Friday were not weeping silently, as an audience sometimes does in England, they were howling in distress. We took this as a compliment.

So, it was back to Lincoln for the 1985 production in the Cloister of the Cathedral. This was altogether a happy production under the benign chairmanship of Derek Hawker, then Principal of the School of Art. One performance nearly ended in disaster, however. The torches used at the Crucifixion set off all the Cathedral fire alarms during the deposition scene. The fire brigade arrived in force. The poor actor playing Jesus was left hanging on the cross, forgotten. Dean Fiennes turned off the alarms; John Bannister started singing the Agnus Dei with his choir. We raised the cross. Such is the power of that music that following such chaos; the audience were straightway back into the drama. The Chairman took me back to his house in Vicar’s Court after the performance and gave me a very stiff whiskey.

We had one more foray to an academic conference, namely, Perpignan University, where we played in the Cathedral (1986). If the acoustics are difficult in Lincoln Cathedral, Perpignan’s black marble pillared nave is almost impossible. We all had to face front and speak very slowly. Apart from actors with sunstroke, we had a joyous time.

In 1989, we were invited by Paul Parker to take the production to America. We played in Southwell for a week and in Lincoln for a fortnight. The twenty-three for the American tour had to be chosen. We had five professional actors, including Colin MacFarlane (The Fast Show) and my sister Louie (Dora Wexford in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries). This was a triumphal tour. We played to audiences of up to 7,000 per night, and they stood up to applaud at the end.

1993 saw a small-scale production in the Cloister and a large-scale follow-up in the Nave in 1994. We had the addition of a large contingent from the Lincoln Shakespeare Company. Many of these young people had been drama students at Bishop Grosseteste College, and their youthful vigour gave the production a useful shot in the arm. Many of these not quite so young people are still members of the Company.

In 1997, we staged the last full-scale production of the plays in the Cloister. In some ways, though not a financial success, the company felt we produced a very satisfying end result. It was far too long – something I have avoided this year. The production uses much of the Cathedral – all areas we have used before but not all in one production. The acquiring of a £30,000 Millennium Grant by our new administrator, Helen Mason, has made it possible to spread our wings a bit this time. The scale presents a challenge to our lighting designer Dave Dray, a challenge he can well meet. Our musicians, led by Richard Still, have produced a CD of the music. We look forward to the week in Southwell again and the exciting prospect of the Lincoln venue. Then there are plans to tour to Europe next year, to Trondheim and Camerino (which we first played in 1998).

I have been so fortunate to have such a fine band of friends to work with, and I have been privileged to have this magnificent building to use for my productions. There is no doubt but that the majestic soaring heights of this great Cathedral are the Company’s secret weapon. Take away the Cathedral and the production loses a major dimension. I have indeed been a most fortunate man.

text by Keith Ramsey, from the 2000 production programme