“At one point, Jesus was admonished by St Peter for his swearing and responded ‘In the house of the harlot, man must master the language’. At another, Satan, played by a female actor, strapped on a huge red phallus before using it to beat his sidekick Beelzebub.” (76)
That’s an extract from the Sunday Telegraph’s review of Constable’s stage production, The Mystery Plays, which got its first staging at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral on April 23, 2000. This date was not only both Shakespeare’s birthday and the feast day of St George, England’s patron saint, but also Easter Sunday. Getting his play staged at two such prestigious venues was no simple matter for Constable, who started by approaching Mark Rylance – then the Globe’s artistic director - and the Very Reverend Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark. “I wrote to Colin Slee and told him about The Southwark Mysteries,” Constable explained. “And he wrote back – quite guarded to begin with. Then I met Mark Rylance. They were very wary of me. Mark had just taken over at the Globe and I think he felt he had to be quite careful. He was representing an international trust, so he didn’t necessarily want a local turning up and saying ‘I’ve had this vision and now you’re going to do this play’ So we had a very rough ride to get there, but it did actually happen.”
Constable’s drama began with a band of Jubilee Line workers inadvertently raising the spirits of The Goose and John Crow while tunnelling at Cross Bones. Here’s how the production’s own website describes the action that follows:
“Satan appears to announce the Day of Judgement and to claim the Whore (Goose), the Heretic (Crow) and the other wicked souls of Bankside. He unleashes Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans, who are in the act of closing the theatre when Jesus appears, riding a bike and bearing a radical teaching of mutual forgiveness.
“He recognises The Goose as Mary Magdalene, wrestling with Satan for her soul. John Crow is not so sure he wants to be forgiven, reminding Jesus of the abominations that have been carried out in his name. The first act ends with Jesus enacting a healing ritual, re-enacting his crucifixion on an operating table at Guys’ Hospital.
“The second act takes place in Southwark Cathedral, which has been taken over by Satan and his devils. They are in the process of inflicting horrible punishments on The Goose, Crow and the other lost souls. Their orgy of retribution is interrupted by Jesus bursting into the Cathedral. He challenges Satan for each of the lost souls, finding creative ways of forgiving them and embracing them into his Divinity. The Mystery Plays culminate in a vision of healing between flesh and spirit and between different cultures and creeds.” (77)
His aim in writing the drama, Constable told one reporter, was to produce a modern version of the traditional medieval mystery plays, complete with their warts-and-all acceptance of human imperfection and the carnival atmosphere in which they were staged. These plays had religious content at their heart, certainly, but scorned all attempts at piety, and that gave Constable a perfect template for his own play. “It’s a sort of left-handed form of Gnostic Christianity, which didn’t come down through churches and priests, but through actors and whores,” he told me. “There’s a very strong sense in the whole work that, through songs, through sayings and jokes, very profane activities, something sacred is being revealed.”
As the first production took shape, it was decided that its first, more controversial, act should be staged at The Globe and its second at Southwark Cathedral. Rylance himself was Constable’s first choice to play John Crow, but declined the role as he already had far too much on his plate. Constable stepped in to play Crow himself and director Sarah Davey set about casting everyone else. Among the major roles, Roddy McDevitt signed on as Jesus, Jacqueline Haigh as Satan and Di Sherlock as The Goose. Local volunteers and children from Southwark’s schools were recruited as extras, spear-carriers and miscellaneous crowds.
Constable kept up a constant to-and-fro with Slee as rehearsals got under way. The Dean was a fierce defender of the project against all outsiders, but never hesitated to let Constable and the rest know when he felt their plans went a step too far. Not all Slee’s notes were accepted by any means, but Davey did agree to his request that Satan leave her phallus in the wings whenever Christ was also on stage.
“In the year leading up to the play, the church went through one or two paroxysms about whether or not they should do it at all,” Constable told me. “And the day it happened, there was a huge thunderstorm half an hour before we opened.” That might be taken as a bad omen at any theatre, but it threatened utter disaster for an open-air one like the Globe. In the end, though, it turned out that God was only teasing: “Virtually the whole cast came up to me and said, ‘You see?’ And then, five minutes before our start time, we got a rainbow.” The play pulled in a packed house at both venues for this debut performance and was greeted with wild applause. Simon Hughes, a local MP who went on to become deputy leader of the Liberal Party, called it “the jewel in the crown” of Southwark’s Millennium celebrations and called for it to be staged again every ten-years.
The Sunday Telegraph, as we’ve seen, was less impressed. “A religious play staged in an Anglican cathedral has provoked fury after it featured a swearing Jesus and Satan wearing a phallus,” fumed the paper’s Jonathan Petre. “Satan told scatological jokes and told Jesus to ‘kiss my ass’.” Petre managed to find one member of the audience who was prepared to call the play “disgustingly offensive”, but also quoted Constable and Slee’s robust defence. “The message was that even the worst sins are not beyond redemption,” Slee told him. The play’s producers, realising that an outraged howl from The Sunday Telegraph was the best publicity they could dream of, splashed Petre’s article on their own website.
In April 2010, the anniversary production Hughes had suggested staged a three-night run, this time using Southwark Cathedral alone and playing to over a thousand people. “I ended up playing John Crow at the Globe, but ten years later I got an actor to do it, which was always my intention,” Constable told me. “I got a six foot six black friend of mine to play it and he did it with great distinction.” If all goes according to plan, the play will next be staged in 2020 – ideally with the Cathedral’s involvement once again.