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Aldermaston - York Nativity Play

6th to 9th December 2001.

This is from the Newbury Weekly News.

True meaning of Christmas

THE YORK NATIVITY PLAY, at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Aldermaston, from Thursday, December 6 to Sunday, December 9

This was my first, long-promised, visit to the Aldermaston nativity play, now in its 45th year and for all that time under the direction of Pat Eastop. Some of the cast and their families have also been involved for three or four decades. The words used were first heard on board pageant-waggons in York more than 500 years ago, but a modernised script was compiled from six texts in 1932, and this is a version adapted for St. Mary's Church.

The church is 12th-century and contains beautiful paintings, patterns and works of art dating from the 14th century, in particular a large, vibrant, colourful mural on the north wall.

Staging was in three main areas: in front of the altar, fronting an alabaster tomb with recumbent knight against the southern entrance to the lady chapel and in the bellringing chamber high up in the west wall, from which Angel Gabriel delivered many of his utterances.

The whole church had been wired and very effective lighting illuminated all these areas as well as the artistic features of the surroundings. The audience was encouraged not to he 'forward-facing Anglicans' but to turn in their pews to watch all the acting areas. When the lights were extinguished, the black-out was intense, and it was surprising how silently the actors left the stage without accident.

Inspired by early Renaissance paintings, the costumes were made in the village in 1957. The first to be seen was Mary's simple gown, not the usual blue, but interestingly in scarlet. This was in keeping with the perception of her as Queen of Heaven, reinforced when she was arrayed in a golden cloak with crown attached. Angel Gabriel was glorious in gold with glitter in his halo of grey hair. The three kings were regal, reminiscent of medieval knights, and wily Herod in black looked suitably villainous and acted accordingly.

The peasants' costumes were simple in comparison but care had been taken over every detail and nothing had the teacloth-over-the-head-and-dressing-gown look.

In the bellringing chamber, the choir read the score by torchlight. Their beautiful, unaccompanied singing was an atmospheric and integral part of the play, adding to the feel of the period. In the nave, the three shepherds displayed fine strong voices in a more earthy vein.

The actors' speeches were unhurried and clear, providing opportunity to listen to the meaning while appreciating the poetry and graceful old English phrases. Mary especially was gracious and gentle in speech and brought freshness to the time-worn words of the Magnificat. The whole effect was peaceful, though perhaps a shade too slow in places. The final tableaux were stunning.

The play provided a calm oasis in the midst of early Christmas preparations and a reminder of the true meaning of this Christian festival.