Mystery Plays

Why ‘Mystery Plays’? They are not who-dun-its, the stories in this tradition are easily understood so, where is the mystery? Today, a mystery is something beyond human comprehension but, over time, the word has changed its meaning. It comes from the Latin ‘mysterium’ meaning an occupation. In the 1300s if you were a tinker, a tailor, a soldier, a sailor, a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker, your trade was your mystery. All tradesmen belonged to a guild and, at Corpus Christi, a feast in the liturgical year in early June, each guild would perform a play based on a story from the Bible. Members of a guild would choose, where possible, a story, which had a connection with their trade. The Guild of Carpenters acted the building of the Ark, the Bakers the story of the loaves and fishes and the visit of the Magi with gifts by the Goldsmiths. These plays were major events showing the Church’s beliefs from the Creation to the Day of Judgement, all the glory of heaven and the horrors of hell played out on two or three square yards.

Norwich had its own Cycle, as did towns all over the country. And the Mystery Plays and the Cathedral’s roof bosses were both depictions of Bible stories. The only Norwich record still available is of the Grocers between 1534 and 1565 giving details of a large 4-wheeled cart topped by the roofed stage. It was crowned by a gilded griffin, the emblem of the Grocers’, stopping along the route for eager crowds who were gathered to watch. Now Bergh Apton’s name is being added to the illustrious list, a contemporary cycle using a mediaeval baton.

These plays started in the fourteenth century and continued till nearly the end of the sixteenth, when acting became a profession and payment expected. The plays were not only used as religious instruction as few people could read or had books but they were entertainment, celebration and worship as well.

In a relay race the runners pass a baton one to another. In a similar way a storyteller belongs to a centuries old fellowship; each one on hearing or reading a story spins their own web of words to tell the story anew.

“Once the dove returned with what looked like half a tree rather than a branch, the doors were opened and we returned from the ark to the dry land outside for the final act. It was a more united body which emerged, one in which people were lifted in spirit, engaged with each other, injected with new energy,”
Bishop Graham in his Norwich Cathedral, Pentecost sermon on 12th June 2011.
Days before he had played God in Hugh Lupton’s Mystery Play “A Mighty Water”, based on Noah & his Ark. The cast put in exhilarating performances to capacity audiences.

On 24th May, 1st June and 8th June 2014, 2014 in Bergh Apton, there will be performances of a Cycle of four Mystery Plays, commissioned again from the internationally known storyteller, Hugh Lupton. The foundation for his contemporary, light-hearted take on Bible stories will be the mediaeval Legend of the Rood, respun with stories, current issues, local lore, and local characters. The Cycle will be performed in several different, leafy locations near the church, with the audience and cast, led by musicians, being taken on a delightful meander of exploration through woods and country, whatever the weather. The actors and musicians will be drawn from the villages that make up the Bramerton Group; Alpington, Ashby St Mary, Bergh Apton, Bramerton, Carleton St Peter, Claxton, Framingham Pigot, Hellington, Kirby Bedon, Rockland St Mary, Surlingham, Thurton, Yelverton.