Oxford Medieval Mystery Cycle takes over Teddy Hall!

1 May 2019

Henrike Lähnemann as Herald, blowing the trumpet to signal the start of the cycle, the Creation & Fall performed by the Iffley Players.

The Oxford Medieval Mystery Cycle took over the College in truly spectacular style on Saturday 27 April, with over 370 people calling in to watch some or all of the ten plays, each performed by a different group. There was a real variety of different styles and interpretations, and even languages as the cycle included Italian and German as well as modern and Middle English, but the enthusiasm was a constant throughout. Thank you to everyone who took part and helped to create a dramatic cycle that was full of humour but also produced some extremely poignant and powerful moments. If you missed any of the plays, they will be available to watch on the St Edmund Hall YouTube channel soon.

The initial idea for an Oxford Mystery Cycle came from Professor Lesley Smith (Harris Manchester College), who had previously taken part in similar events in Toronto. Professor Henrike Lähnemann (Fellow of St Edmund Hall) was keen to encourage the initiative and contributed her extensive drama experience (as well as her trumpet-playing skills, which were put to excellent use in announcing the start of each play). The pair were joined by Eleanor Baker (DPhil student in English at St John’s College) who played a crucial organisational role, as well as a dramatic one as Mak in the Shepherds play.

“The enthusiasm, creativity and commitment of all of the groups involved was outstanding,” said Eleanor. “It was an absolute pleasure working with each of these groups, and so gratifying to see how successfully they pulled off their inventive interpretations of each play. I hope everyone who came to see us enjoyed it as much as I did. A huge thank you to all involved, whether on stage, behind the scenes, or in the audience!”

Adam (Nicola Borthwick), obliged to work for the first time after eating the apple. (In the Creation & Fall by the Iffley Players)

Local groups had been invited to choose a medieval mystery play and then produce it as they wished. The Iffley Players started the cycle with a lively version of the Creation, with God calling down from the Old Library windows and an entertainingly devious devil getting his come-uppance as Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise. We then moved inside to a packed Old Dining Hall to listen to a reading in the original Middle English pronunciation by members of the English Faculty staff, in which Noah and his wife had a spirited dispute against a backdrop of humorously animated medieval manuscript illustrations. The third play, the story of Abraham, was performed by pupils from Magdalen College School around the well, before the action moved to the churchyard for the New Testament.

There were consistently strong performances by everyone involved. The Cuddesdon Players, English Faculty Students, Lincoln College, a group of Italianists, Medieval Germanists, St Peter’s Ensemble (University College, London) and Teddy Hall students produced the New Testament plays. Full details of each one, and the actors involved can be found here.

Our four-legged actor, Florrie the dog, was clearly an audience favourite – after escaping being sacrificed in the tale of Abraham, she went on to steal the show in the Shepherds play, causing some unintentional humour in her role as a lamb when she started to enthusiastically lick the face of one of the sleeping shepherds!

Liam McDowell gave a particularly memorable performance as Jesus in the Crucifixion and Lamentation. His patient suffering, and then the anguished lamentation of Rebecca Bowen as Mary, stood in stark contrast to the callous bickering of the soldiers responsible for nailing him to the cross, the most technically difficult part of the cycle to stage. St Edmund Hall students concluded the afternoon with the Last Judgement, which they had updated to include some rather more modern humour!

“The feedback forms spoke eloquently about how much fun people had,” said Henrike. “One comment that particularly pleased me was that they wanted to know more about the medieval texts behind the plays – it was exactly what we had hoped for: to reach out with Oxford Medieval Studies to people beyond the usual medieval crowd while at the same time linking up all the colourful work and multilingual expertise across the University. The medieval settings of St Edmund Hall were the natural perfect stage (and the weather added to the drama – it nearly blew the trumpet out of my hands up on the top of the library tower!). I enjoyed the whole enterprise enormously, and am still slightly incredulous that an enterprise conceived just half a year ago over tea in my office with Lesley Smith was actually taking place in such a wondrous multitude of forms. From the female trinity in the Old Library to the slick female Christ of the Last Judgement (or was it the Antichrist?), this was truly exceptional and just a joy to behold from alpha to omega!”

Jesus (Liam McDowell) suffering on the cross while one of the soldiers looks on dispassionately, in Lincoln College's Crucifixion.

Feedback from the audience included the following comments:

“Absolutely excellent. Thank you so much. Brilliant acting and singing and a delight to hear so many different languages.”

“Brilliant! I came just for the first one and stayed until the end! Thank you so much!”

“Really fantastic! Loved the variety of takes. It would be great if this became a regular event.”

“Fantastic! Loved the range of texts, languages and interpretations – really brilliant work.”

If you would like to find out more about the plays and the thoughts of the groups who produced each one, please visit the Mystery Cycle section of our website. We will also be adding the videos of each play soon.

Photographs from the day can be found on the Hall’s Flickr site.

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