Meditation on Christmas
Every year since 1957, the York Nativity play has been performed in the beautiful 12th-century church of St Mary the Virgin at Aldermaston, with each production directed by Pat Eastop.
The church, with its glorious 15th-century triptych above the altar, stained glass and frescoes, was the original and continuing inspiration for the production. In the quiet and stillness of this ancient church, one feels part of the human continuum. The play is a perfect preparation for Christmas.
Taken from the 14th century York Mystery cycle, the play is cast within the village. Generations of local people have taken part, with individual roles sometimes passed from fathers to sons, from mothers to daughters, adding to the play’s sense of intimacy and community. For Third Shepherd Leslie Woodley this is his 50th production; his brother Barry is also in the play, and their father before them. For the last 12 years Joseph has been played by Nick Caiger-Smith; the part was played by his father Alan for many years.
The production, evocatively and sensitively lit by Chris Chapman and Clive Vare, used the whole of the church space. The spare text, the strong, simple colours of the costumes, the minimal movement and props, concentrate the mind on the meaning of the poetry. Every word counts.
Slow-paced and formal, the production is as much meditation as performance, suffused with the director’s painterly eye and creative sensibility. Tableaux have their provenance in 15th-century European religious art, in the colours and design of the costumes, and in the arrangement of figures. Catherine Ramsell, a radiant, calm Mary, the Queen of Heaven, dressed in red and wearing a crown, sat, partly turned, on a red Eastern carpet, an image from a late medieval painting.
The original costumes were designed by artist Isabel Hall, mother of Newbury painter Christopher Hall. When they need replacing, new costumes are made to her original designs. Ecchinswell potter Geoff Eastop made and fired the ceramic baby Jesus.
The text is deliberately, and meaningfully, spare, and all the cast brought a clear understanding of the text to their parts. Bent-backed Joseph was at first bemused, then accepting of his wife’s pregnancy. Chris Newman as Gabriel was an otherworldly figure. The three shepherds with their fine strong voices, brought down-to-earth attitudes and simple presents to the baby, one a gift of a spoon which could hold 40 peas; the Three Kings, identically dressed, came to believe in the miracle. Peter Oldridge’s performance as Herod suggested a simmering violence; black-robed acolytes bearing candles and incense brought the ritual of the temple to the presentation of the baby to God.
Music, drawn from the 12th to the early-17th centuries and originally chosen by the rector, the Rev Stanley Young, for the first performance in 1957, was an equal partner with the drama. The audience assembled to music played by five recorders from the Galliard Band and the Camberley Recorder Ensemble: a simple, timeless sound. The thin plucked notes of a carol played on a psaltery, followed by a solo voice, heralded the performance itself. The unaccompanied choir, singing from the tower, were conducted by the director of music, John Mountford.
The production is a real team effort, dovetailing the talents not only of actors, singers and musicians, but all the backstage contributors so essential to its success, from stage management, wardrobe and make-up, to publicity, graphic design and administration.
The ending was inspired. In the softest of light, Mary sat cradling her baby, Joseph beside her, his hand held above her head like a halo. Gradually, into a deep silence, all light was extinguished. As a faint light grew, the figures had gone. All that was left on the dais were the Three Kings’ gifts, the only tangible evidence of the holy birth: physical symbols of faith itself.
For more pictures, go to the online gallery