Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Big Night

Why oh why did I promise to post again tomorrow? As you can see, that never happened. Instead I've been gathering photos from all around, uploading them to our facebook page (follow the badge to the left and take a peek), setting up a flickr account for the Belfast Mystery Players (whereon the pictures will soon also be uploaded) and adding some snaps into the previous entry to brighten it up. While I am still awaiting some more footage, which should allow us to get on with editing a DVD together, I think I've now done enough housekeeping to allow me to get on with the narrative...

One of the biggest difficulties we had over the course of this project (and that's saying something) was fixing a date for the performance. Initially, we had hoped with ridiculous and naive ambition to do three nights, but cast-availability did not permit it. Then, having scaled things down to the idea of a single day, we had to move the date from early to late May, owing to the busy schedule of events being held at Queen's. In the event, the 30th was still damned busy.
And so, after a relaxing morning, various members of the team brushed past fans watching the FA Cup final and assembled at base camp. When I arrived, I was greeted by a podium Dave and Chris had obtained...somehow...for the Creation scene, Gerard was busily writing essays and Dave and Chris were watching our mystery predecessor on DVD - 'Testaments', a mammoth mystery-cycle staged at Queen's exactly ten years ago when Dave was a mere undergraduate (he's now a big bad PhD student).

Over the next couple of hours we gathered all the supplies we could need - guitar strings, blu tac, food - the usual. Then we hit our first potential roadblock. Having lugged boxes of drinks, glasses and grub for the wrap-party to College Green, we found a reception was already set up for a Law conference. Despite having all assurances the place would be ours come 9pm, we were perturbed. Luckily, our worries were unfounded and everything was set up for later.

And so, for the next while, we did every last-minute preparation we could think of as the cast and crew assembled. This included repairing, or trying to repair, angel-wings and inflating sheep of a rather questionable nature for the Nativity scene. Everyone was in a good mood as we managed, for the first and unfortunately the last time to gather everyone on the team in the one place. There were surprisingly few worries, arguments or tantrums (at least if such things did occur, they were kept well hidden). Although we had completed a fantastic-looking dress rehearsal the day before, it was wonderful to see everyone in their costumes, and all the props assembled. It looked far far better than a shoestring-budget student play should do.

We gather outside... (Photo courtesy of Kevin Byers)

Having moved outside on University Square to chat with parents and teachers and to pose for pictures (and, as usual, bemuse passers-by) we soon headed out for the performance. At the main gates we were confronted by a heartwarmingly large crowd of faces both familiar and unfamiliar. Apparently, there was much murmuring of 'is this the right place for the mystery plays?' While the majority of the cast took their places inside the campus gates for their scenes, and Chris and our trusty undergrad production-manager Paul Murphy ran around setting everything up, myself, our Expositors and Lorraine took our places in front of Queen's. After much nervous checking, and waiting, and checking again that everyone was in place, I chimed the chords of the performance's fanfare, welcomed the huddled masses, and we were off.

Off we go... (Photo courtesy of Kevin Byers)

After a lovely, clear and (most important of all in an open-air performance) loud rendition of 'This is the Truth' from Lorraine Clakre (Ms Seraphyn), Daisy Brindley and Bridget Innes(Expositors 1 and 2) got the ball rolling. The crowd seemed to enjoy the girls' last-minute insertions of their native Stoke-on-Trent and Leeds, respectively, to the metropolitan litany of "Belfast and Béal Feirste, Chester and York, Rome and Jerusalem" I had written. The crowd also had much fun when we invited them to choose either the good souls' or the bad souls' gate into the campus. It was exciting inviting the audience to move with the performance for the first time. Luckily everyone was happy to oblige, and Daisy and Bridget did a great job throughout the night shepherding the flock.

A mystery cycle, geddit?! (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Harden)

After the preliminaries, we moved onto our first scene proper - 'The Creation of the Universe', written by my fellow MA student Will Liddle. As I hope you can see from the photos, staging it in front of the Lanyon building's main doors, with the podium set up for the Heavenly press conference looked fantastic. As the doors were still, well, working doors, however, we were briefly interrupted by a couple making their way to a function in the Great Hall. And when did they choose to enter? Just as God and her Heavenly cohorts entered the scene. Perfect timing. There was also, later, a similar though much lower-key late entry from one of our audience members. Anyway, such minor hiccups aside, the scene worked fantastically. After all our worries in the preceding days everyone spoke beautifully, in particular Deus (Tripti Tripuraneni), who cut an imposing and fashionable figure with just the right amount of aloofness. Not a line was forgotten, the iPod worked to allow Lucifer (David Falls) to enter accompanied by the Rolling Stones' 'Sympathy for the Devil' and angelic white coats and wings were mercifully easy to remove. Our writer, Will, was playing the Archangel Michael and myself the Archangel Gabriel , and so after Lucifer is dragged aside, we had to drag Ms Deficiens (Rachael Cairns, our blessed sole original angel) away. While I remembered to remove coat and wings, I forgot to place devil-horns on her head, and had to be reminded by her. Not terribly authentic but we got there in the end.

An interruption... (Photo courtesy of Kevin Byers)

Next, I strapped my guitar on once more and played, appropriately enough I thought, the traditional English tune 'The Beginning of the World' as we moved the audience through the black and white hall and on to Eden for 'The Creation of Man', written by myself and Chris Jackson (in half an hour no less). Here, after thankfully getting a big laugh from the audience from a joke I'd written for the Expositors about Barack Obama, things progressed. The sight of Adam (Gerard O'Brien), in white bath robe, rising like a zombie from a small patch of garden in the quadrangle got a great laugh, as did that of Adam and Eve (Lauren Reid) flirting with each other like shy teenagers. At this point in proceedings, Chris, my co-producer and on the night all-round-on-the-ground-manager joined us to watch the show. Unfortunately, I'd just remembered I had left the biscuits, crucial to a later scene, back at base-camp, so Chris dashed back to grab them. After some ringing and texting between the two of us, though, the crisis was averted and the biscuits were safely in place.

Adam meets Eve... (Photo courtesy of Stephen Kelly)

Between man's fall and his creation we had some more music (the medieval tune 'Vite Perdite' this time') and some more Expositoring. It's impossible for me to choose a favourite from all the scenes in the performance. However, without a doubt 'The Fall of Man', written by David Falls, looked the most impressive. Staged on the lush expanse of grass in front of the admin building, it was the busiest scene in terms of characters on stage. As you can see from the pictures, we had Deus and Ms Deficiens, looking like they should be on the cover of Vogue, on either side of a tree, with the sun gently falling through the leaves and branches. To stage-left we had Adam playing football and fondling grass with Ms Serpahyn and Ms Cherabyn (Christina Lauro). Then, centre-stage was Eve, with Lucifer snaking around the tree before which she sat, tempting her with a bottle of WKD, with the grass littered with even more bottles. This was perhaps the most engaging scene. The simultaneously hilarious and actually quite pointed choice of WKD as the fruit of knowledge, the sight of Eve slipping into an adolescent tantrum and arguing with God (made all the more effective, I think, by having a female God), and Adam's side-splitting bouts of apophaticism and bewilderment worked beautifully.

'The Fall of Man' - what a scene... (Photo courtesy of Alan in Belfast)

Next, I slipped my guitar from my shoulders and took my place for my first piece of acting in what must be a decade. 'The Nativity', written by another of our MA students Linda McCrory, began with Joseph (Laura Downes) hunched to one side, while myself (as Gabriel, of course) ate biscuits and pretended to drink tea with the Virgin Mary (Rebecca King) and her trusty servant (Carla Bryson). In Alan in Belfast's glowing, much appreciated review of the night ( - to which I shall return in my next post) he points out an hitherto unnoticed ambiguity in our play. In it, he wanders whether Mary's sidekick was her mother. Others suggested it was her sister, or simply her friend. While unimportant to the working of the scene, the different responses people had to the character of the servant were very interesting to see. I particularly like the idea of it being Mary's mother, as Carla played the scene with the perfect amount of maternal affection for Mary and maternal-in-law (if I can coin an unwieldy phrase) for Joseph. Laura, playing Joseph, had the longest monologue of the night and pulled it off with great aplomb. The girls, meanwhile, more than held their own as they defended Mary's honour. I particularly liked when they simulated breathing-exercises for Mary's imminent labour, a nice touch they added which I hadn't noticed until the big night. I then camped it up as Gabriel. For some reason, early on in rehearsals, Dave and Chris had thought it would be a good idea to play the most mighty of angels in a, to put it politely, camp fashion. I'll never understand their reasoning, but it worked a treat, helping to enliven a great but really quite intense scene. I offered Joseph a biscuit, as you do, persuaded him to believe Mary and off we went for the small matter of witnessing the Incarnation.

Hollyoaks - Joseph doubts Mary. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Kelly)

Early on, we had pinpointed birth as a difficult spectacle to pull off without risking arrest for public indecency. For a while, my idea of having the Archangel Michael carry the infant Christ through the crowd held sway. A sweet idea, I thought. In the end we opted for the much quicker, much more funny yet altogether undignified option of having the infant frame of the saviour of all humanity flung from behind a post and caught by Mary as if she were angling for a spot on the Lions' tour of South Africa.

Before Lorraine and myself finished things off with a rendition of the African-American spiritual 'Poor Little Jesus', the Expositors took their positions to wrap things up and, perhaps, set up the Belfast Mystery Players' next adventure... One of the most exciting and interesting things of this project was the fact it was entirely written, directed and performed by a group of people from lots of different national, cultural and religious backgrounds. Moreover, regardless of our religious origins, we each had varying degrees of faith. Luckily, the event never (I hope) became a dull or too-pious slice of sermonising. Nor did it maliciously mock religious belief, it simply narrated familiar biblical and Christian-mythopoeic narratives with a real sense of humour. However, throughout, I had hoped to ensure, as it's fair to assume the original mystery plays might have done, that the performance also expressed the cultural and theological complexity and sheer weight of what we presented. The figures of the Expositors were perfect for this. Acting as a bridge between the scenes and the audience, they asked questions and answered them. Thus, at the end, Bridget, whose character had previously failed to understand anything she had seen, all of a sudden realised the heartbreaking inevitability that the infant Christ was 'doomed' to suffer and die. In his review, Alan in Belfast picks this turn of phrase out for particular comment, for which I am glad. While, as he highlights, an unconventional choice of words, it sums up what this performance was dramatically leading towards - which is our ambition to produce, at some point in the near future, a life of Christ and/or a Passion narrative. The defining characteristic of this narrative is, as countless literary, dramatic and cinematic interpretations have illustrated, the tension between Christ's humanity and His divinity. For the Son of God, death was not death at all but a destiny, a gift. For the Son of Man, His fate was a death-sentence, a terrifying prospect, it was His doom. This is what our Expositors illustrated. The fact that they did so in front of an inflatable penguin and those questionable sheep did, however, make sure once again it wasn't a sermon.

Take a bow... (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Harden)

And so, after applause, bowing, some words of thanks from me and more applause, we all chatted with our (thankfully) delighted and proud audience, before heading off for the wrap-party. As a group, I think we were all delighted with the night. It progressed with a smoothness we'd never accomplished before, and everyone performed their roles perfectly. Personally, I was thrilled and filled with pride. Despite some changes along the way, we cast each role quite perfectly, and each scene, despite its different tone and vocabulary, came together to form a coherent and enjoyable whole. Brilliant.

Until next year... (Photo courtesy of Kevin Byers)

And so concludes my mini production-diary. In the next post I'll include some more pictures and begin reflecting on the lovely feedback we began receiving in the hours and days after our debut. Until then...



Alan in Belfast said...

So a very modern mystery play - crowd sourced content from within your group, crowd sourced footage and photos too. No to figure out how to do one of next year's plays in the form of twitter messages held up by the actors!

So how many plays did they squeeze in ten years ago?

The Mysterons said...

What would such a meta-technological play be called? Facegospel? Actually, there has been talk of a more multimedia mystery play in Belfast in the near future - your prediction might yet come true!

I'm not sure how many plays 'Testaments' managed, I know they did more performances than our 'one-night-only' escapade, and had a bigger chronological scope too - i.e, Creation, Noah and the Flood, Passion, Judgement etc. We originally had such lofty ambitions, glad we decided to stretch it out over a few years, always leave them wanting more...