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York Nativity Play

7th to 10th December 2000 at Aldermaston Parish Church.

Amazingly, this is the 44th year that Pat Eastop has directed the York Nativity Play at Aldermaston. The York cycle provides a supreme example of the 'Mystery' plays, that is, drama put on by the trade guilds. The Aldermaston version translates a street festival as seen in the late fourteenth or fifteenth centuries into a dramatised Christmas meditation in a church.

One much-loved annual ritual in drama has, five centuries or so later, become another, on a much smaller scale though paradoxically using with great ingenuity a medieval church building even older than the York plays. However, although the character of performance has inevitable changed and the language has been half modernised, there are features of the writing which easily survive the transition.

Review and preview from the NWN:

A genuine feel of the first Christmas

THE YORK NATIVITY PLAY, at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Aldermaston, from December 7 to 10

Those who know that this play has been performed ever since 1957 in this quite beautiful little church (always under the direction of Pat Eastop) will be thrilled to be made aware that this astounding harbinger of Christmastide at Aldermaston is as moving as ever.

Those who have never been, are advised to put a note in their diaries and make sure they go in 2001 because, sadly, the last performance of this year was on Sunday, when two bishops, one from Winchester, the other from Oxford, travelled like the Kings of the Bible story to see this reverent, poignant, and most musical re-telling of the coming of the Christ child.

Using a manuscript dating from between 1463 and 1477, finely arranged by E. Martin-Browne in the early '30s, Mrs Eastop and her band of players from Aldermaston and its neighbouring villages, aided by singers from Newbury and Reading, once again come closer to providing a feeling of what the first Christmas may have been like than any other I have seen in half a century of drama-watching.

They are helped, of course, by the magnificent continuity of some of the cast. Particularly by the wonderful Joseph of Roger Taylor, now playing the part for the 19th time, and by traditions like that of the Caiger-Smith family.

Nicholas Caiger-Smith, once a candle carrying temple acolyte as a child, here plays the first king, with his 12-year-old son, William playing the role he played so long ago. At least three generations of Caiger-Smiths have taken part.

The joyful playing of Catherine Bowman, as Mary, owes much to her having played the part seven times before. This year, though, we got a new Herod in Peter Oldridge, a twinklingly perverse monarch.

From the first moments, when Judith Denny sings the 'Angelus Emittitur', itself dating from 1582, the church, superbly lit by Ken Grummitt, becomes a truly magical place. And when the action begins, the language of the characters, so unique in its cadences, speaks across the centuries.

A special word for the musical director, Peter Denny, and for the elderly players, among them two of the three shepherds, and Norman Hughes as Simeon. The latter brings a marvellous rustic dignity to the evening.


A community's fine tradition of mysteries

Next week the village of Aldermaston plays host to the 44th annual performance of the 14th-century York Nativity Play in the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin. Pat Eastop reflects on the whole arts experience of this meditative production.

Anthony Gormley's sculpture 'Sound 11', in Winchester Cathedral, formed a part of a recent exhibition called 'Sculpture and the Divine'. The work, gifted to the cathedral and sited in the crypt, is modelled on the artist's own body and is perfectly at one with the fluid structure of the ancient Cathedral arches.

The exhibition included works of art from other cultures, including a 13th-century Buddha head from Siam and a 20th-century Lobi shrine figure from Ghana. Art from the 13th century in the same show as contemporary sculptors, Stephen Cox, Alison Wilding and Gormley are reminders of the fine examples of visual art to be found in churches up and down the country. Other art forms using church spaces such as music and drama can highlight existing works and promote new ways of thinking and contemplation.

At Aldermaston, in the parish church of St. Mary The Virgin, the dramatic lighting for its annual medieval play illuminates not only the players, but also historic art works. The impressive alabaster tomb of the Foster family, carved in great detail, forms a background for one of the two stages. Look above and beyond it into the Lady Chapel where the players wait, whispering or preparing to make their entrance, and there is a huge, early 14th-century wall painting of St. Christopher. A second stage is built in the chancel and behind it, above the supra-altar, a wonderful 15th-century triptych catches something of the light. The pulpit where 'First King' gives his opening speech is Jacobean and the walls are covered in murals painted at the turn of the 20th century.

Lighting the York Mystery Cycle in the 14th century must have been problematic. Huge flaring torches would have picked out actors and architecture as the pageant-wagons used to stage the plays went around the city of York, starting at 4.30 in the morning and going on until late at night.

The 48 plays contain 14,000 lines in a rumbustuous processional production dealing with the Creation to the Last judgement. Mystery simply means a play put on by the trade guilds, who were responsible for the players and maintaining the wagons and costumes. Pageant masters were strict and there would be fines for poor workmanship. Imagine the audience participation - Herod would certainly have been booed!

At Aldermaston, a quieter and more meditative approach is taken in a 1930 adaptation of the plays by E. Martin-Browne. The production is formal, allowing the distinctive poetry and the dramatic story of the Nativity to make an impact. The whole of the church is used and often there is as much drama outside as Mary, huddled in her beautiful scarlet robe, protective Joseph, grandly dressed Kings and joking, but reverent Shepherds pick their way through the gravestones to make their entrances.

Interspersed with the text, an unaccompanied choir sings from the ringing chamber of the church tower, hauling themselves up the spiral staircase with a rope. Peter Denny, the director of music, conducts in the dark, sharing the tiny space with 'The Angel Gabriel'.

The play has been performed in unbroken sequence since 1957 when, coincidentally, the young Judi Dench was in a production of the whole cycle at York - and her parents were in it too.

Generations of families have taken part in the play at Aldermaston. Hundreds have been involved. Why is it that a play has survived in a village for over four decades? The answer must lie in the dedication of local people, in the very essence of art that is evident in the words and music and in the centrality of the birth of a child.