Aldermaston - The York Nativity Play (2005 onwards)
8th to 11th December 2005. For the 49th year, the York Nativity Play was performed in the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston.
From the Newbury Weekly News.
Nativity story is beautifully reborn
York Nativity Play, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, on Thursday, December 8, Friday, December 9 and Saturday, December 10
'Fresh' might seem a strange description of a play dating from 600 or 700 years ago, and performed for 49 consecutive years at Aldermaston church, with the same inspired director and largely the same cast, in the same costumes, accompanied by the same music. Yet the impact is still one of directness and immediacy.
The story could not be more familiar, yet one waits eagerly for the next moment, so vividly do the actors - and the text itself - draw the audience into a shared experience. It is also a visual experience of great beauty, irresistibly suggesting medieval illuminated manuscripts in glowing red and gold, with the principal figures attracting veneration, while the more earthy shepherds bring daily life into the margins. The audience are time travellers, living on three levels at once. We are drawn back to what happened in Nazareth, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago; but we also experience these events as they were seen by a medieval audience of labourers and craftsmen, hearing saints and angels speaking in their own dialect, not in the Latin of the Church. Medieval theology is woven into the dialogue, and both the shepherds on the hillside and the high priest in the temple deliver an uncompromisingly Christian message.
We are in our own time too, in the context of our own lives, hearing a version that is clear and comprehensible, but keeps the structure and some of the vocabulary of medieval thought.
The York Nativity is not presented as a theatrical performance, with star ratings and applause. It is offered as a devotional preparation for Christmas, an audible and visible prayer. Succeeding generations of Aldermaston families, and singers drawn from all around, give us clarity of diction - dignified or robustly cheerful as required - great visual beauty and music worthy of the angelic choir.
Next year will see the 50th birthday of this offering. Try not to miss it.
4th and 7th to 9th December 2006.
From the Newbury Weekly News.
Story of simple faith
Fiftieth Aldermaston nativity play is the true heart of Christmas
The York Nativity Play, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, on Monday, December 4, Thursday, December 7, Friday, December 8 and Saturday, December 9
It was with 'joyful steps' that audiences sped to Aldermaston's Church of St Mary the Virgin for last week's performances of this play from the 15th-century York Mystery Cycle. Now in its 50th year of production, the play retains its ability to evoke an awestruck wonder.
Music played by members of The Wessex Society of Recorder Players started the process of taking those present back to medieval times and single notes of The Noble Son of Jesse, quietly played on a psaltery, heralded the arrival of Mary, the embodiment of motherhood, to hear from a gloriously robed and glittering Gabriel (Chris Newman) that she was chosen by God to bear his son.
Catherine Ramsell made a most joyous and serene Mary, face alight throughout, while Nick Caiger-Smith was exceptional as Joseph, making it clear how difficult it was to accept his young wife's pregnancy, until a second visit from Gabriel brought enlightenment.
They headed a team of extraordinarily talented local people, many of whom have been appearing in the play for years. For them it must be not only demanding work, but a very special part of their lives.
There could surely be no better place to tell the familiar story than this beautiful 12th-century church and as the lighting rose, and diminished, extinguishing altogether for the birth, it seemed as though we had all strayed into a medieval painting in which principal characters were brought to life.
Adding to this effect were the splendid costumes, many preserved from the earliest performances with loving care, along with several of the props, including two doves presented at the Temple by Joseph.
And behind it all came magnificent 15th and 16th-century music as the choir, under the direction of Peter Denny, sang tenderly and clearly from the cramped, chilly ringing chamber, the tunes chosen 50 years before.
It was encouraging to see young lads taking part, for this is a tradition which must continue as a unique reminder in our materialistic world that it is not overflowing shopping trolleys and expensive presents which are at the heart of Christmas, but this story of simple faith.
4th to 9th December 2007.
From the Newbury Weekly News.
A message for all
Fifty-first Aldermaston nativity play still has something fresh to give
The York Nativity Play, at St Mary the Virgin Church, Aldermaston, from Tuesday, December 4 to Sunday, December 9
The best antidote I have found to battling Christmas shopping crowds, carpark queues and internet checkouts was stepping back to the culture and costume of the 1400s and a dialogue of pre-Shakespearean rhyming couplets in the York Mystery Play. It was performed for the 51st time this week in the beautiful, unrestored church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, which is also of that period.
So, as someone who has had opportunity over the years to explain the nativity story to others, I was both surprised and gratified to find new depth of meaning in Joseph's plodding confusion, the aged, shuffling Simeon's astonishment and joy at being able to see the prediction of the Scriptures fulfilled, and the growing sense of destiny for Mary, changed by her encounter with a majestic angel Gabriel.
The York Mystery Plays are some of the oldest surviving mystery plays, the cycle of which covered the whole of the salvation landscape from beginnings to final fulfilment, with each story or tableau acted out on a cart by a particular trademan's guild. Originally, the procession moved slowly through the city for the midsummer festival, stopping at various performance stations, a devotional form of the modern carnival procession on its lorry trailer and without the award rosettes.
Using a 20th-century adaptation by playwright E. Martin-Browne, director Pat Eastop has taken the six tableaux which cover the announcement to Mary, the visit to Bethlehem and the birth, Herod's suspicions and the visit of the Magi, and set them all around the audience in chancel, side chapel and bell-tower of the church, to present one moving episode which, however, requires one to settle down to medieval pace and language.
But far from sounding banal, the result has great impact and is humorous at times, without losing any of its message. The metre of the verses, originally written by the York clergy, varies according to the urgency and mood and communicates in a way that modern language cannot approach -perhaps because it makes one think about the words.
Interwoven, we recognise a version of Mary's Magnificat and Simeon's Nunc Dimittis, and the acting is strongly reinforced by early carols, in Latin and vernacular which, if not exactly of the period (four-part harmony, first devised at Reading Abbey, became popular a little later) fitted like a glove.
Although presented as a drama in its own right, welcoming anyone of any faith or belief, there was a powerful underlying message. Indeed one role was that of the vicar, the Rev Pete Steele, who appeared near the beginning, like any other actor, to set the scene in a very approachable way and explain the meaning of Jesus' birth. His voice was heard again in words of blessing at the end, all seamlessly part of the presentation.
8th to 14th December 2008.
From the Newbury Weekly News.
Tribute to optimism
Testament to the enduring power of the York Nativity play
The York Mystery Play, at the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, from Monday, December 8 to Sunday, December 14
Pat Eastop's direction of the Aldermaston Mystery Plays embraces the very soul of English culture and language. The plays mirror the rhythm and phraseology of their 14th-century originals, being a composite of six such tableaux that were played from wagons hauled around York in a sort of mobile stained-glass window. The costumes are well-researched versions of medieval dress and Peter Denny leads the musicians playing and singing in a goodly mix of Latin and Middle English adapted for the modern era.
It feels like a good medieval idea to have them up in the ringing chamber, but the cramped space has to be shared with Archangel Gabriel, played with all the imposing sense of sacredness by Chris Newman.
Mary is Catherine Ramsell playing opposite Nick Caiger-Smith as Joseph. She copes with everything with total serenity; first there's the annunciation, then they journey to Bethlehem, then Joseph's anguished doubts, the small matter of the birth of our saviour, and finally off on a donkey to Egypt. Never mind, says she, "It is the will of God", adding meekly: "Where is Egypt?" "I dunno" replies husband. Typical.
The speech and the physical movements are so reverential that it is refreshing to welcome the three shepherds, played by Adrian Thomas, and Barry and Leslie Woodley. Caught napping on the little stage by Gabriel, they leap up to dance around like red-hooded tag wrestlers.
This could have put the three kings in the shade, were it not for the wonderful voices of all three (Peter Faulkner, Chris Newman and Steve Wallis), pondering as they journeyed upon the wisdom of obeying Herod's laws. Just as well, for they are espied by Jack Arlott's Gollum-like portrayal of one of Herod's Men of Might. He, of course, spills the beans to the bad guy (Peter Oldridge), who gnashes his teeth and fumes in a masterly mix of menace and urbanity, reminding the Magi to be back in court before closing time "on pain of life and limb."
The Temple Priest (Tim Clarke) treated us to another lovely speaking voice with the hard job of keeping control of one or two of his acolytes. He really will have to tell them off about concentrating on their candle-handles. Youth of the Middle Ages, eh?
Never mind all that, the audience were absolutely delighted, body and soul. It's a tribute to optimism, for come what may, this dramatic entertainment has endured for 700 turbulent years. Let's look forward to the next 700. Pete Steele may not still be the parish vicar, but we can be sure that they will still be playing the Mysteries at St Mary's.
10th to 13th December 2009.
From the Newbury Weekly News.
Bethlehem revisited in 53rd York mystery production
York Nativity Play, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston from Tuesday, December 10 to Saturday, December 13
This was the 53rd production of the York Nativity Play at Aldermaston with the very first, way back in 1957, using many of the same costumes, the same music and almost another miracle, the same director, Pat Eastop. With a continuous run like that only The Mousetrap in London has been going longer.
This, though, is no lightweight engaging thriller; this is a text written by E. Martin Browne based on six individual plays from the renowned York Mystery Cycle from medieval times. Pat Eastop's production is visually impressive and the actors function with smooth harmony within the story and the tableau they create together.
The splendid 12th-century church provides an ideal location, allowing the audience to be transported back into the past and creating an atmosphere where the visual groupings take on the look of rich oil paintings brought to vibrant life.
Essentially, we are presented with one set piece after another, representing the events of the Bible story in sequence and acted out naturally in the language of the times. From the chime-like notes of the psaltery, played by Heather Davies, and followed by Catherine Ramsell as Mary, the cast moved through their various roles with clear, crisp diction and a sense of reality about everything they said and did.
Catherine Ramsell had little to do except look serene and contented after the initial shock of being told of her destiny, although she did it very well, delivering her lines with conviction. Nick Caiger-Smith was suitably old, bent and confused as Joseph, changing as the action proceeded to acceptance and joy. There were good performances from the actors playing the three kings, the shepherds and, indeed, everybody in the cast, for this was an ensemble performance, carefully and reverently choreographed by the director.
The action took place all around the church, with music from the choir conducted by Peter Denny coming from the tower. This was the music chosen in 1957 and used at every production since. Pat Eastop told me that it is quite a sight to see the actors in medieval costumes, emerging from the village hall and getting into their 21st century cars to drive up to the church. I didn't see that, but I was transported back to Bethlehem for an hour-and-a-half of theatrical magic with words edited in 1932 by Martin Browne that resembled those heard 500 years ago in York.
6th to 12th December 2010.
From the Newbury Weekly News.
Message speaks across generations
Aldermaston's mystery a simply-told reminder of the Christmas story
The 54th Aldermaston York Nativity Play, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, on December 6, 9, 10, 11 and 12
The festive season conjures up images of snow, particularly this year. Fir trees, frenetic shopping, presents, glorious food, over-indulgence and commercialisation.
So it was surprisingly refreshing to be reminded of the origin of the Christmas story told simply and with total sincerity by the community of Aldermaston in the delightful 11th-century church of St Mary the Virgin, with its beautiful frescos.
For the past 54 years, The York Nativity Play, known locally as the Aldermaston Play, has been performed directed by Pat Eastop, based on the York Cycle that was originally staged on pageant wagons, pulled through the streets of York.
There was a wonderful atmosphere in the church as the story of the Nativity unfolded. Many of the cast have been playing the characters for years and families have passed on the roles from generation to generation.
The action took place throughout the church as Mary (Catherine Ramsell) revealed to Joseph, convincingly played by Nick Caiger-Smith that she was going to have a baby. Angel Gabriel (Chris Newman) was splendid as he delivered the news, quite literally, from on high.
The three shepherds, Adrian Thomas, Barry Woodley and Leslie Woodley followed the star to the stable to pay their respects to the baby Jesus. However, King Herod (Peter Oldridge) was determined to find the baby and kill him.
Also following the bright star were the three Kings, strongly played by Chris Goodchild, Steve Wallis and Peter Faulkner, who wished to bestow the traditional gifts on baby Jesus.
The entire cast embraced the medieval rhyming language with confidence and performed some lovely singing as they related the story with passion and commitment. It was good to see the youngsters playing the parts of messengers and acolytes. Their futures as main characters are undoubtedly ensured.
Dramatically lit and beautifully costumed in medieval dress and with the most exquisite harmonies from the choir this was the perfect and most moving start to Christmas celebrations. Bravo.
8th to 11th December 2011.
From the Newbury Weekly News.
Not so much a play, more an institution
Landmark 55th year under the same director for Aldermaston's York Nativity
The York Nativity Play, at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Aldermaston, from December 8 to 11
Although the original plan was for no more than three performances, the York Nativity Play has been been presented at this church every year since 1957. For this landmark 55th presentation by the same director, Pat Eastop, who put on the very first performance, I made my way to the 12th-century church an hour before what she had told me was a dress rehearsal/performance.
The charming, Grade 1 listed building was already buzzing with activity as King Herod stood by a pillar and the three Shepherds in full costume chatted together. Sundry visitors and invited guests looked on. Mary was being followed by a cameraman from Meridian television and Joseph looked on with a bemused expression. Over the years, Pat told me, the play has become almost a family affair with sons and daughters of cast members taking part and some actors playing their roles almost as long as she has been directing.
Leslie Woodley, with 48 years' service the longest serving actor, is still playing a Shepherd today and still loving it. Rivalling William Roach of Corrie for longevity in one role, he does not plan to retire. His brother, Barry, has a long way to catch up with a mere 10 years in the part of Second Shepherd. The brothers work as a groundsman and an estate worker respectively when not treading the boards. As for Mary, played by assistant headteacher Catherine Ramsell, she has been in the part for 18 years and has decided to retire after this year's performances to make way for Zoe Wilgar, a teaching assistant eased into the part by playing it on two nights. Nick Caiger Smith, a director of a charity for the disabled, will end a 13-year run and five years before that as a boy, playing Joseph.
In spite of swift interviews going on by the Meridian presenter and myself and the intrusive, roving camera, pointing at all the characters in turn, Pat Eastop makes it clear that everything must stop at eight for the performance.
And so it begins. I've reviewed twice before over the years but somehow it seems to have extra zing and bite on this evening; Mary appears more serene than ever, Joseph is exceptionally emotive and powerful in his opening scenes. Even the glorious colours of the costumes, blending into the lighting and the wall shadows have an extra depth and dimension.
The staging is first-class, utilising the entire church, including the gallery with a tableau effect to many of the set pieces and when you add in the music from oboe player Emma Tyson and the choir directed by Peter Denny, the illusion is complete.
The words, adapted by E. Martin-Browne and edited from original texts of the six, individual York Nativity Plays, resemble those heard more than 500 years ago and they have resounded round the walls of this lovely old church for 55 years and still counting. Long may they continue to do so.
6th to 9th December 2012.
From the Newbury Weekly News.
Jewel in the Christmas crown
The 56th Aldermaston nativity play is a time to reflect
The York Nativity Play, at St Mary the Virgin Church. Aldermaston, from Thursday, December 6 to Sunday, December 9
Christmas has officially begun. The York Nativity Play has completed its 2012 run in the beautiful church of St Mary the Virgin in Aldermaston.
This community production has, for the last 56 years, been creating an oasis of calm at the start of the busy-ness that is Christmas for most of us. It is a feast for the senses, an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Christmas or perhaps just to marvel at the dedication of the people who make this gift to us year after year.
Nobody is more dedicated than Pat Eastop, whose vision takes an extract from the cycle of mystery plays performed on wagons in 14th century York and makes it meaningful to a modern audience in a medieval church in Aldermaston. Over nearly six decades, she has cajoled, charmed and chivvied her performers, musicians and backstage workers to ensure that every year the production is as close to artistic perfection as possible.
Part of the magic is the sense of continuity, not only of the story but also of the players; it is not altogether a joke that when a new actor joins the cast he or she is told it is a 30-year contract.
Inevitably, there are cast changes from time to time, but somehow they reinvigorate rather than disrupt. This was Zoe Wilgar's second year as Mary and she has already established a presence with her entirely convincing portrayal of a trusting and devout young woman.
I am sure I was not the only regular attender to worry about how anybody could possibly replace Christopher Newman as Gabriel but Nigel Antell is a worthy successor, remarkable for his dignity and clarity of delivery.
Warwick Brown made a welcome debut as second king, Kerry Woodley played Anna for the first time and Kyle Brown and Benjamin Givan began what we hope will be long associations with the play.
The role of second maid was taken on at short notice by the play's secretary, Alison Faulkner, following the death of Jenny Franklin and the production was dedicated to Jenny's memory as well as to the Queen's jubilee.
I must make special mention of the choir, under the expert direction of Peter Denny. Perhaps because I was sitting closer to the gallery from where their unaccompanied voices float over the production and audience below, this year they sounded better than ever. They create a truly beautiful sound which weaves through the drama unfolding below them.
If experiencing Aldermaston's nativity play is not yet part of your Christmas tradition, do go next year. But you will have to move quickly to get a (free) ticket - hundreds of people already know about this glowing jewel and the church is always packed.