A review by Richard J Thornton for EXTRA! EXTRA!





Shakespeare's Globe presents




The Southwark Mysteries


Marcus Griffiths (Adam) and Lisa Mc Grillis (Eve) in The Southwark Mysteries

Photo by Ellie Kurttz


Written by Tony Harrison


Directed by Deborah Bruce


Shakespeare's Globe


5 August- 1 October 2011

The Globe Mysteries is a theatrical Frankenstein. A show whose body has been reconstructed from Middle Age text, given life via a contemporary Northern dialect and then thrust into the public eye via the unsympathetic portal of the cavernous Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.

It's a game as old as time to re-work the bible stories into a more accessible aesthetic, but although Harrison's language has both charm and wit, its elocution was too much of a cross to bear for the actors on a windy evening on the Southbank. It's a difficult task to achieve intimacy and engagement in episode-based theatre: the actors have no time to sink into their roles, and the audience little time to empathise. Perhaps in a more immersive space, the audience's attention could handle the changing scenes and swapping ensemble, but in a theatre built to house Shakespearean monoliths, a play which aims to cover the King James Bible inevitably fails to engage.

However, it’s easy to blame circumstance, and one can't help stating that repetition of over-familiar and stylised bible stories is hardly an original concept. Berkoff's attempt at the New End last year fell short, and that's as intimate and intense space as one could hope for. Ironically, the show is knowingly unoriginal. As the programme explains, the production is an exploration of how 14th century provincial towns spent a day a year playing out a promenade version of the bible stories in order to entertain visiting royalty. A fascinating historical event, but the energy and fervour which may have sustained an unscrupulous public then has evaporated over time to weary commonplace.

Of course, the play has its moments. The wicked surprise of King Herod surrounded by a hundred, bloody plastic babies is a touch of class from designer Jonathan Fensom, and his circular explosion of gold above the stage is a haven for the eyes during the play's less fluid scenes. There's some handsome interplay between Joe Caffery's Abraham and William Ash's Issac as they tussle with the word of God, and Ash's frisky Jesus delights in his later confrontation with the slapstick Beelzebub (Matthew Pidgeon) and the roguish Lucifer (Paul Hunter). Hunter is indeed electric throughout, from his enchanting opening as the fallen Lucifer to his tongue-in-cheek machismo as Herod.

Harrison's verse is at many times tickling, but the tongue-tripping alliteration and exaggerated accents slip out of reach on the hazardous journey across the pit. The Globe Mysteries has all the elements of an absorbing night at the theatre: a lively cast, clever arrangements from Deborah Bruce, a minimal but aromatic score from Philip Hopkins, some high-minded poetry and audience engagement in the pit (I've never been to a show where I was told whether I was 'saved' or 'damned' before'). And yet, as Jesus is slowly winched up onto his scaffold-supported cross, frozen above the indifferent high-vis thugs who nailed him, I was more interested in how the tech guys came up with the pulley system than compassionately re-imagining the horror of the crucifixion. Bravo to the researchers who devised an interesting project for the Globe back-of-house, but alas to the lack of theatrical nous which should have battened down the hatches of this aimlessly drifting ark.



William Ash (Jesus) in The Southwark Mysteries

Photo by Ellie Kurttz
Box Office: +44 (0) 207 401 9919
Shakespeare’s Globe
21 New Globe Walk
Tickets: £37 / £5


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