In the beginning was the word
I’m right at the top of the raked seating in Chester Cathedral. My view encompasses the entire audience as well as the stage. The performance is about to begin. I’m nervous, but not nearly as much as usual on opening nights. Perhaps it’s because I know that as the writer I have been, at most, merely a custodian of this work, and that it truly belongs to the people who are about to perform it.
My journey to this night began more than two and half years ago when the director, Peter Leslie Wild, asked me if I’d be interested in doing the script for the 2018 Chester Mystery Plays. I didn’t have to think about it for a second. Since my university days I have been fascinated by these remarkable early plays.
After a conversation with Peter, I submitted a treatment for consideration by the Board of The Chester Mystery Plays and was subsequently commissioned to do the script. From there it was a journey through several drafts, design and production meetings, casting and rehearsals, and now here we are… opening night.
People often ask me how it feels to be a playwright watching a performance of one of my scripts. I usually say that it’s like a dream I once had, playing out in front of my eyes. But this is different. I always enjoy being part of rehearsals and, as a writer, the first night is often the final moment of letting go for me - but I realise I let go of this script months ago. This isn’t just because of the long process. The words in the play are not mine. I’ve edited and crafted them – shaped them like clay – but they are the words of other writers long ago. This play didn’t come from me. It passed through me.
So, if it’s different to a normal showbiz first night, how do I feel now as I watch the Holy Trinity build their chair at the start of the show? I feel humbled and honoured. I delight in the actors, and in the wonderful work of the other creatives on the team. As Cain slaughters his brother, as the ark floats away on a sea of plastic, and Jesus dies on the cross, I feel immensely privileged to have partnered with the ancient writers of these plays, to bring stories of such magnitude and significance to a modern audience.
The Chester Mystery Plays are works of art and they do their work on us. They touch something deep within us, fulfilling a need to be told and retold these fundamental stories of life, death, suffering and forgiveness – and always in the context of Community. The performances are given by the people of Chester and it’s this living connection, on a continuum between the past and the future, that makes The Mystery Plays so special.
And now I am content to slip into the shadows, with all the other writers down the centuries who have momentarily lent their craft to this remarkable work.