Pros: Set in a beautiful performance space that supported some very effective moments of drama.
Cons: Quite heavy going content, not necessarily palatable to the many. The ‘box office’ experience is also very raw!
Son of Man is a new creation by Cut String Theatre performed in Middle English from an original script, edited together by the company from 48 Medieval Mystery Plays. It is performed in the impressive 1,000 year old crypt maintained by the Museum of the Order of Saint John in Clerkenwell; an apt location for a play that explores the conflict between absolute moral laws and the reality of human existence. Two ‘sinners’ are brought in by Lucifer – who is yet to fall. Lucifer initially sets out to unquestionably condemn them for their crimes against the Lord. However, after the desperate and then mutinous pleas of the ‘sinners’, Lucifer finds himself reconsidering his marching orders.
The Mystery Plays are among the earliest known, formally developed plays in Medieval Europe. Conceived originally to act out famous stories from the Bible in churches, they were presumably used as a tool for teaching congregations about the scripture. As they became increasingly popular they also became more and more elaborate, ingratiating themselves into many towns’ civic activities. They were overtaken by professional theatre around the 16th century and slipped into obscurity. However, they continue to represent an important part of European ecclesiastical, literary and social history.
Cut String Theatre’s revival is fairly unique. The plays have been revived in modern times before; most notably in 1951 at the Festival of Britain and in 1970 at the National Theatre. However these revivals were not exhaustive of the material, therefore there are lines in Son of Man which are likely not to have been uttered on stage for hundreds of years.
I saw Cut String Theatre perform last year and marked them as one to watch. They have a real talent for performing, and their staging is interesting and experimental. All of the actors I have seen perform have mastered the Middle or Old English faultlessly, developing intelligent and convincing characterisation along the way. Their talent is raw certainly in my opinion, but there is talent for certain.
In this new piece the performance space is impressive and the acting is as good as it was when I saw their Romeo and Juliet last year. Staring at the lovingly crafted and richly ornate stained glass windows of the crypt as the piece plays out, the audience finds itself contemplating the role of the church in society. Son of Man sits in its environment comfortably, the play imbibing the reverential attitude of its grand surroundings to good effect.
In opposition to their last choice of Romeo and Juliet – a Shakespearean play that far from slipping into obscurity holds its place conspicuously in the theatrical canon – this new text is much more of a leap of faith. And for me personally using the Medieval Mystery Plays as a springboard for the audiences to question the nature of Christian belief in this day and age isn’t quite radical enough. Something felt lacking. There needs to be more, perhaps some kind of modern parallel which makes the revival relevant and more palatable to 2014 audiences. I also felt that the space wasn’t used to its complete potential. The crypt is a very evocative and atmospheric space, but supporting atmospheric tools such as music may have enhanced the piece even more. Having said this obviously the crypt is a heritage site so perhaps there were limitations to the use of the space in this respect.
Overall, this is a piece worth seeing, albeit with a bit of a rocky ‘box office’ experience. The novelty of watching a performance in a crypt as old and beautiful as Saint Johns is enough to draw audiences. And, especially given the resources Cut String Theatre have being a small company, the performances are also a very good reason to see the show too!