The Mysteries, in a Version by Tony Harrison

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Watch the television version of The Mysteries (Channel 4) via YouTube

The Mysteries on BBC Radio 4 Extra

BBC Radio 4 Extra, 20 October 2013
Listening to this radio version of Bill Bryden's classic 1985 stage production, so soon after the recording of Harrison's poem V, I was struck by the links between the two pieces.  Both are written in popular idiom: the action of The Mysteries unfolds in a series of alliterative and/or rhyming phrases, reminding us of the origins of the Mystery Plays in popular culture.  More importantly, Bryden's production made no secret of its artificiality: what we were listening to was a series of staged moments from the Bible, performed by a group of tradespeople who were taking advantage of their few hours' respite from daily life.  Put another way, the Mysteries were performed by the people for the people, dealing with familiar topics in such a way as to be comprehensible to everyone.  The Mysteries, like V, understands the importance of community spirit as the basic glue holding a society together, and tries to recreate it through music, dance and pageant-like drama.
When the cycle was first performed at the Royal National Theatre in the mid-Eighties, it was highly successful, not least for the fact that the audience were drawn into the promenade production.  Some spectators were certainly embarrassed by the experience, but in general the reception was exceptionally favourable.  In the radio version, this sense of community was obviously lost a little, but the actors and musicians made sure that they delivered their lines close to the microphone and thereby find a means of forging an intimate relationship with the listeners.
What I also remember is that Bryden's company was regarded at that time as somehow 'different' from the companies performing in the National's two main houses.  He worked mostly in the Cottesloe; those actors and directors confined to the Olivier and Lyttelton Theatres often viewed his work suspiciously, especially when he and his actors appeared to be having such a good time, as well as keeping box-office takings high.  This is an interesting point, suggesting, perhaps, that "community theatre" was still regarded as inferior to "classical theatre." If this is the case, then the National Theatre itself could be accused of perpetuating that kind of "V" spirit - in other words, the spirit of conflict - that Harrison berates in his poem.
Listening to The Mysteries now, I was struck by two things: first, that the production, and its music seems to be something of a period piece, a relic of a movement within the Royal National Theatre that disappeared long ago.  Secondly, it seems that there needs to be more of this kind of popular theatre, combining music, drama and song, that emphasizes the importance of community.  It might only be an imagined community, comprised of listeners and performers, but at least it might help bring people closer together.