As early as the 1300’s, mystery plays have delighted audiences in Norwich, giving dramatic life to some of the greatest stories ever told.
Prepare yourselves: on 25 – 27th August (nicely timed over the bank holiday weekend) the Norwich Castle Keep opens its doors to an immersive theatre experience suitable for all ages. With live music, period costume and some special scenic effects, this production brings to life an exciting piece of local history and is definitely one to get excited about!
Mystery plays were performed to encourage a wider audience to attend church and be knowledgeable of the Bible stories. These then became the birthplace of theatre in England. The only remaining Norwich-based story is The Grocers Play, a Bible story told by the Grocers’ guild of Norwich. The other plays which will be performed are from the N-Town Cycle and have been adapted and directed by Peter Beck. The N stands for ‘name’ ie. Norwich or Lincoln and due to their dialect can be traced to the Norfolk / Suffolk border. A cast of three professional actors, who will be singing and playing instruments, will perform the plays. Chris Ellis, a local musician and composer, will write some music and is keen for the performance to embrace a mix of medieval instruments.
These plays were traditionally performed by trade guilds so Peter and the team are delighted to have the participation of the Guild of St Stephen and St George, the stonemason’s training lodge based at St Clements Church in Norwich.
Medieval mystery plays (from the Latin ‘misterium’ meaning ‘occupation’ or ‘craft’) were biblical stories theatrically presented by town trade guilds, with each guild taking responsibility for a particular piece of scriptural history. They were typically presented on a religious festival day, often as part of procession, and so were often referred to as ‘pageant plays’.
Image: ©Mark Ivan Benfield
The Grocers’ Play, is known to have survived from what is likely to have been a dramatic cycle of plays from Norwich. Records from the manuscripts of 18th century antiquarian John Kirkpatrick show not only a transcript of the 1533 Grocer’s Play Paradyse, but also evidence of eleven other plays that were presented by guilds in Norwich at that time. Peter was able to hold this copy in the archive department of the County Council – literally holding a piece of history in his hands!
Another surviving work from this period is the N-Town Plays, a cycle (or collection) of 42 mystery plays, now said to belong to East Anglia. The plays would have been toured from town to town, with the ‘N’ in the title (meaning ‘nomen’, the Latin word for name) being replaced by the name of the town you were playing.
Peter is keen to keep the plays accessible to all and family friendly, as well as a visual treat for the audience. The plays will form part of the medieval activities available in the Castle this summer, and be a cultural tourism attraction for visitors and locals alike.
To produce these plays in the medieval surroundings of the castle could not be more perfect, and the admission fee is very low at £5 an adult with children free of charge, so we’d highly recommend you experience it for yourself!
Image: ©Mark Ivan Benfield
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