Southwark Mysteries

The Southwark Mysteries
a contemporary cycle of Mystery Plays by John Constable

The Southwark Mysteries by John Constable was first performed in Shakespeare’s Globe and Southwark Cathedral on Easter Sunday, 23rd April 2000. A new production was staged in Southwark Cathedral in 2010.

23rd April 2000
Easter Sunday, St George’s Day, Shakespeare’s Birthday
Shakespeare’s Globe and Southwark Cathedral

Mysteries 2000 - 'Satan & John Crow'
Satan (Jacqueline Haigh) and John Crow (John Constable) Photo (c) Juliet Singer

Directed by Sarah Davey
Designer: Annie Kelly
Musical Director: Richard Kilgour
Jesus: Roddy McDevitt
Satan: Jacqueline Haigh
Yahweh: Peter Marinker
Goose / Mary Magdalene: Di Sherlock
John Crow: John Constable
Moll Cut Purse: Michelle Watson
John Taylor: Niall McDevitt
with a community cast of adults and children from three local schools.

A capacity audience attended the performance, which began in Shakespeare’s Globe and ended in Southwark Cathedral.

2 The Southwark Mysteries in Shakespeare's Globe 23 April 2000 - photo (c) Juliet Singer
The Southwark Mysteries. Shakespeare’s Globe, 23 April 2000. Photo (c) Juliet Singer

The Southwark Mysteries,  is a modern drama inspired by the medieval mystery plays and rooted in the history of Bankside – London’s ‘outlaw borough’. The play begins with a band of Jubilee Line Tunnellers digging up the Cross Bones burial ground, inadvertently raising the spirits of The Goose and John Crow, who come bursting through a tear in the backcloth. Satan appears to announce the Day of Judgement, and to claim The Whore (Goose), The Heretic (Crow), and all the other wicked souls of Bankside. He unleashes Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans, who are in the act of closing the theatre, when…

13. 'Son of Man in the street' ph Juliet Singer
Jesus (Roddy McDevitt), ‘Son of Man in the street’. Photo: Juliet Singer

Jesus appears, riding a bike, bearing a radical teaching of mutual forgiveness. He recognises The Goose as Mary Magdalene, exorcising her demons and 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 conducting a healing ritual, re-enacting his crucifixion on an operating table in Guy’s Hospital. He dies, only to be ‘resurrected’ by a Police Constable who cautions the audience that ‘…rumours of this here Apocalypse are grossly exaggerated.’ The audience is then led along Bankside, from The Globe to the Cathedral, by a band of devils playing jazz.

Mysteries - Satan & Co at Shakespeare's Globe
Satan and Devils in Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo (c) Juliet Singer

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 horrific 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 and embracing them into his Divinity.

Angel in Southwark Cathedral
Goose, Angel and Crow in Southwark Cathedral. Photo (c) Juliet Singer

The Southwark Mysteries culminates in a vision of mutual forgiveness and healing divisions – between Flesh and Spirit, and between different cultures and creeds.

The play evokes Liberty as a spiritual state, in which contrary belief-systems can creatively interact ‘to heal the wounds of time in a Vision of Eternity’.

The Dean of Southwark Cathedral recognised that, for all its explicit language and pagan elements, the play was deeply rooted in Southwark’s unique cultural identity and Christ’s teaching of forgiveness. However, some fundamentalist Christians took issue with the very idea that such a play should be staged in a Cathedral on Easter Sunday.

The Sunday Telegraph, May 14th 2000

A religious play staged in an Anglican cathedral has provoked fury after it featured a swearing Jesus and Satan wearing a phallus.

The Southwark Mysteries was produced by Southwark Cathedral and Shakespeare’s Globe in south London as part of the capital’s ‘String of Pearls’ Millennium celebrations. It mixed bawdy medieval scenes with modern imagery and referred to bishops engaging in homosexual sex with altar boys and priests visiting prostitutes. The character of Jesus, who rode onto stage on a bicycle, was shown apparently condoning a range of sexual activities, while Satan told scatological jokes and ordered Jesus to ‘kiss my a***’.

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.

The play was written by John Constable, who said that he had deliberately wanted to challenge Christians. ‘Profanity is a theme of the play’, he said. ‘The point of it was to explore the sacred through the profane. ‘ Mr Constable said he had worked closely with Mark Rylance, the Globe’s artistic director, and the Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev Colin Slee, who conceived the idea of a joint production to mark William Shakespeare’s birthday falling on Easter Day. He said the clergy had made a number of suggestions about the content, but he had not acted on all of them. ‘They did ask me to make sure that Satan did not wear the phallus in the presence of Jesus, which I did’, he said.

The first section of the play, which contained much of the bawdy material, was staged at the Globe, and the final part, ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ in the cathedral. ‘Colin Slee was very robust in keeping me on the straight and narrow’, Constable said. ‘The play is a new version of the traditional medieval Mystery plays, which were religious in nature but accepted human imperfections and took place in a carnival atmosphere. It seemed to be well received by most people who saw it.’

But one member of the audience, Simon Fairnington, has condemned the play as ‘disgustingly offensive’, saying that it ‘revelled in the glorification of vice’. In a letter to the Dean he complained: ‘Had the play been a purely secular production, one might not have been surprised at its treatment of Christian belief. What was dismaying was that it was sponsored and performed in part within a Christian cathedral. The cynical part of me wonders whether this is simply a sign of the times, and the way the Church of England cares about its Gospel and its God.’ Anthony Kilmister, chairman of the Prayer Book Society, said: ‘This is not the sort of play that should be performed in God’s house. It is quite disgraceful.’

But the Dean, who was the centre of controversy a few years ago when he allowed the cathedral to be used for a Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement celebration, defended the play. The performance was in keeping with traditional Mystery plays and ‘portrayed graphically the life and history of the area’ which was ‘where the seamier side of life was to be found’, he said. ‘The message was that even the worst sins are not beyond redemption’, he added.

Given the controversy surrounding the 2000 production, Southwark Cathedral stuck its neck out by hosting a new production in 2010. The author John Constable and The Dean, The Very Revd. Colin Slee, appeared in a special feature on the BBC’s ‘Songs of Praise’ to discuss the play.

Exactly 10 years on from the world premiere of The Southwark Mysteries, the 2010 production featured a core cast of professional actors, a 50-strong adult community cast and three school groups.

A community-cast workshop in preparation for The Southwark Mysteries 2010.
Community cast workshop. Photo (c) Nadja Niemann

The community cast were professionally trained over 3 months of twice weekly workshops, culminating in a week of intensive rehearsals. The inclusion of the community cast was funded by The National Lottery through Big Lottery Fund.

More than 1,000 people saw the three performances of the play in Southwark Cathedral.

300 more saw the free public rehearsal at The Scoop, More London, by the London Assembly Building.

Please cut/paste this link to photo-set by Dominic Search: The Southwark Mysteries 2010 production including workshops and dress rehearsal:

22nd, 23rd and 24th April, 2010
Southwark Cathedral
The Southwark Mysteries by John Constable

Directed by Sarah Davey
Designer: Annie Kelly. Musical Director: Simon Jermond.

Devils v. Jesus lo-res
Southwark Cathedral, 22nd April 2010. Photo (c) Dominic Search

Jesus: Merryn Owen
Satan: Daniel Copeland
Yahweh: John Constable
Goose / Mary Magdalene: Michelle Watson
John Crow: Charlie Folorunsho
Moll Cut Purse: Caroline Garland
John Taylor: Kai Simmonds
with a community cast of 50 adults and children from 3 local schools.

The Goose (Michelle Watson)
Goose as Mary Magdalene (Michelle Watson). Photo (c) Dominic Search

Sarah Davey’s 2010 production made imaginative use of its Cathedral setting. The seating was rearranged to create a traverse stage, with Yahweh and Satan both preaching from the pulpit.

From his first entrance, unnoticed by the zealots who eagerly proclaim that ‘He is come’, Jesus identifies himself as ‘an outcast god’. His appearance, wheeling a bicycle and dressed as a rough sleeper, was particularly effective, with much of the audience averting their eyes in embarrassment. Having exorcised seven devils from The Goose-Magdalene and forgiven even the truculent shaman John Crow, Jesus proceeds to reenact his crucifixion on an operating table in Guy’s Hospital:

Here I take on the Sins, the loss, the grief of the world, its amputees and malignant tumours… It’s short… circuited… motor neurons…

The Sisters of Redcross. Photo (c) Dominic Search

As Mary Magdalene cradles the dying Jesus, the Sisters of Redcross lead a procession of the sick, the lame and the outcast to honour and mourn him.

This simple act symbolises the Cathedral receiving those, like the Winchester Geese, who were historically shut out of its communion.

The themes of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation echo throughout this modern Mystery Play, and are reiterated in its final scene:

In Cathedral Provost may ponder
if he should unbar the Great Door
with a wink and a nod
to the Glory of God
in the guise of an unredeemed Whore.

Let Bishop’s crook offer him Counsel,
Ways and Means for the Door to unjam.
If needs must be seen
that the Whore be washed clean
of her Sin by the blood of The Lamb

then let it be so, but then let it go
the Guilt and the Shame and the Sin.
Let go of The Law
that made her a Whore
And then, for God’s sake, let her in.

The Southwark Mysteries by John Constable is published by Bloomsbury

Past and present, sacred and profane jostle and collide in a glorious tumult in this anarchic drama, inspired by the medieval Mystery Plays. The work of the local writer John Constable, it’s couched in verse that is muscular, ribald, and often dazzlingly rich…

The Times, 28/04/2010