Highlights of the Oxford Medieval Mystery Plays 2023

A fantastic day was had by all at the third Medieval Mystery Cycle held on Saturday, 22 April that took place across the Front Quad and St Peter-in-the-East churchyard of St Edmund Hall. Actors, directors, singers and designers staged six plays dating from between the 12th and 16th centuries. Retelling Biblical stories from the Nativity to the Last Judgement, the cast expertly performed in medieval and modern languages, including Latin, Middle English and Middle High German.

Master of Ceremonies Jim Harris (left) and the Choir of St Edmund Hall (right)

Master of Ceremonies Jim Harris (Teaching Curator, Ashmolean Museum) delighted everyone as audience guide and play narrator with linking verse composed by David Maskell, and we were treated to Peter Abelard’s ‘O quanta qualia’ sung by the Choir of St Edmund Hall led by College Chaplain the Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano.

Piers Plowman with tackling the seven deadly sins (left) and the Virgin and Christ Child of the Nativity scene (right)

Group ‘Swonken ful harde’ performed first with extracts from Piers Plowman in Middle English, that saw Piers taking on the seven deadly sins through the visions of Will the Dreamer. Following in Middle English, The English Faculty wonderfully performed the Chester Nativity and Salutation with a humorous interpretation of Roman Emperor Octavyan as King Charles III in time for the Coronation!

Scheming Herod delights in news of the Slaughter of the Innocents (left) and Mary Magdalene steals a member of the audience (right)

Marguerite de Navarre’s 16th-century French play of the Comédie des Innocents was performed by group ‘Les perles innocentes’ with singing by Lucy Matheson (read a report by director Elisabeth Dutton), with the dark scenes of the Slaughter of the Innocents countered by a comically scheming Herod and angels supplying chocolates to the audience. We were then treated to a charity coffee and cake stall in the break by the Oxford German Society in support of the German Red Cross. This was followed by a fantastic adaptation of the Carmina Burana Bavarian Passion play by the ‘Sorores Sancte Hildae’ group in Latin and German, with audience participation!

Professor Henrike Lähnemann and trumpet leading the angels (left) and a gleeful Lucifer capturing lost souls for Hell (right)

The unofficial award for best costume design went to the Medieval Germanists who performed the Harrowing of Hell in Middle High German with English narration, that saw a troupe of winged angels and Lucifer herd an imaginative array of lost souls to the Crypt’s Hellmouth. The day closed with Past and Present Teddy Students delivering a high-energy staging of a modern English version of the Last Judgment with St John of Patmos being guided by an exacerbated angel through comic visions of the battle between Christ and Satan for souls.

St John of Patmos and his visions of Heaven and Hell in the Last Judgement

We are particularly grateful to Professor Lesley Smith and Professor Henrike Lähnemann, co-directors of Oxford Medieval Studies, the driving force behind the Mystery Cycle, Michael Angerer, Graduate Convenor for the Mystery Cycle, and to the Fellows and Principal of St Edmund Hall, for once again agreeing to host our medieval madness!

A full programme and listing of the wonderful cast and crew can be found on the Oxford Medieval Studies website here:  https://medieval.ox.ac.uk/2023/04/21/oxford-medieval-mystery-plays-2023/

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