Feeling Thankful – thanks to the Unthanks

First published 12 September 2012

Phew. Taking a break from obsessive Olympics and Paralympics viewing to return to my blog. In the last couple of weeks, in between gasping in awe at the feats of the world’s Olympians and Paralympians, I’ve seen some fabulous cultural offerings, all outstanding for different reasons.  

Most recently there was the astonishing York Mystery Plays, set in the Museum Gardens in York. The mediaeval cycle of plays, telling the stories from Creation to The Last Judgement, has been performed by the people of York for centuries. This production, from  York Theatre RoyalRiding Lights Theatre Company and York Museums Trust, was one of the most ambitious since the modern revival of this tradition in 1951. Created by over 1,000 local people and professionals, it showed 32 of the 48 plays, with a cast of about 250 community performers and professionals, led by Ferdinand Kingsley as God and Jesus, and former Corrie baddie Graeme Hawley as the devil. I saw the final matinee on the bank holiday weekend, and it was amazing for the sheer spectacle, the emotion and power in the performances, the ingenious, minimalist but very evocative staging, making great use of the setting among the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, and the wonderful language.  During the interval I heard some people discussing the fact that the language was difficult to understand but they were engaging with it, and because these plays were born from a tradition of storytelling that was as visual as it was linguistic, their meaning is clear, even if you weren’t brought up on bible studies. This production was adapted by York writer by Mike Kenny. Part of the vision for this production was “To create a bold, exhilarating piece of story-telling theatre on an operatic scale and to re-invigorate the tradition and the language and make these plays accessible to a modern audience”, and they succeeded in spades.  The reviews were almost all ecstatic – here’s what The Guardian had to say – and the enthisiastic momentum generated by the twitterati, piling superlative upon superlative, meant that this was pretty well a sell-out season despite the weather. 

But the GREAT news is that, if you missed it, or even if, like me, you’d like to revisit it, you can, from this evening, on the BBC/Arts Council website The Space.  But you don’t have to watch it in whatever static way it’s served up to you – you can create your own edit, from six different cameras, in a ground-breaking offering from digital partners Pilot Theatre and Kinura.  Check it out and be astonished.

Another real treat was Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi in London, a birthday present from my beloved. Bloody marvellous. Bloody and marvellous.  The production is wonderful in its own right, but was extra special for me because Sweeney Todd has always been my favourite of Sondheim’s musicals, and I know the book and the score backwards, but I’d never seen it live; I’d only ever seen the badly-videoed original – but iconic – Broadway production with Angela Lansbury.  This London production, with Michael Ball as Todd and Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, was much more thoughtful and thought-provoking than that more caricatured original;  this barber and pie-maker evoked your sympathies more, even while their deeds were horrific. The performances were more subtle and the characterisation more three-dimensional.  I loved it.

And in York again a few weeks ago – where have I been all my life, that I’ve never met The Unthanks? This folk band from the north-east is fantastic!.  We were at the York Minster to see the final gig in the tour that marked their fabulous collaboration with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass band, the national champions of Great Britain.  This evening was special because of the exquisite combination of the elements – the voices and harmonies of The Unthanks, the sound of the brass, and the setting and acoustics of the Minster.  It was an inspired collaboration in that, as The Unthanks point out, brass is a very compatible vehicle for telling folk stories, the stories of working people.  Here they all are with the The King of Rome, which they performed at the BBC folk awards this year. 

I love a good brass band, me, and the stage was given over to “Briggus” for two numbers – a very accomplished contemporary piece, and then, just as I was thinking, “Well, that’s better than the Floral Dance”, what should come but … yes, well…..but not like you’ve ever heard it before.  I suppose if you have to perform it because it’s a brass band staple you might as well give it some wellie and find your own version. I had a sneaky feeling they were sending it up, with all those flourishes and all that showing off, but they seemed to be enjoying it and the audience had a ball.  But the stand-out number of the evening for me was Rachel and Becky’s a cappella rendition of a Caribbean sea shanty, which was exquisite enough in its own right but which the acoustics of the Minster, with the most astonishing reverb, turned into something that could never be recaptured in another venue or a studio.  

So I’ve had a very lovely couple of weeks, and feel very lucky.  Right, back to the Paralympics on the telly…oh, and a look at Cabinet re-shuffle, which I might post my thoughts on later

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