In a previous life (well, some decades ago), I spent several frustrating years enmeshed in an abstract academic study of the political concept of ‘community’. Every political theorist I examined seemed to have a different notion of ‘community’ and to be using it to support a different political end. Turns out I should have just waited for Chris Thorpe and Sam Pritchard to produce The Mysteries. These six plays, about six different localities, are an intimate and insightful exploration of what ‘community’ means in practice to the people who actually live there. And they are more illuminating about the contradictions and tensions within the experience of community than any academic thesis could ever be.
Supported by local artefacts and screens displaying images from the places in question, six actors perform cross-cutting narratives around themes of identity, belonging, power, tradition, continuity and change. They are (one assumes) fictional, but derive from real conversations and provide a lens through which to view each place. Each is rich with irony. A prodigal sister who has long ago left Eskdale for the lure of Manchester, returns to re-kindle some sense of belonging, while her sister, whose role is now simply to “serve beer to the tourists”, simply can’t wait to leave. Meanwhile, a new resident – here to decommission the power station – is enthusiastically appropriating romantic stories of the town’s past. In Staindrop, the Lord of the Manor hosts a free Open Day for his tenants (serving a vegetarian alternative alongside the hog roast) whilst quietly raising their rents. In Whitby, a protestor occupies the old and threatened Tourist Information Office, championing it as a relic of the town’s ‘industrial heritage’.
Thorpe’s writing is piercing, especially around the issue of change and the importance of stories in maintaining a sense of continuity; “A mountain is still a mountain even after you’ve drilled out the inside – as long as you keep looking at it.” There are also wonderfully acute observations which are made in passing but subtly capture worrying cultural shifts; e.g. “People don’t dislike each other any more. They just dislike types.” But especially remarkable is the way in which Thorpe manages to convey loss and dislocation in each of these communities whilst avoiding a sense of bleakness. There is sadness, to be sure, but there are also glimmers of ineradicable human optimism – or, at least, a determination to find ways to move forward; in Stoke, a woman makes new ceramic designs by deliberately shattering old pieces of crockery in order to find new patterns in them (an interesting metaphor, perhaps, for current political developments).
The writing is at its most powerful in the Manchester play, where Thorpe recreates the day of the Arena bombing. He observes and celebrates the solidarity of Mancunians in response to the atrocity but reminds us that the bomber was ‘one of ours’ – he lived our stories but was somehow allowed to slip outside our communal understanding. It is a provocative and devastating thought, uncomfortably shifting some of the responsibility for the tragic events of that night.
Each of these six plays has been performed in the community in which it is set. And it feels like this is both the most appropriate and effective way of staging The Mysteries. Performed back-to-back over a period of eight hours, however, they lose their impact. Apart from Whitby – which buzzes with energy – the pace, content and staging of the performances feel repetitive and sometimes even laboured and didactic. And the decision to leave Manchester to last is a mistake. While it seems like an obvious climax for a city-centre audience, the absence of theatricality in the staging makes it hard to digest after eight hours. I struggle to absorb the dense prose performed by the six, seated actors and wish that I had seen this when it was decoupled from the other plays. I ‘get’ enough to know that I very much want to read the text, but I emerge from the theatre feeling flat rather than exhilarated. And this feels like a waste of what is clearly a brilliant and thought-provoking piece of writing.
Four years ago, Chris Thorpe gave us Confirmation – an attempt to reach out across the gulf that separates us from people who think differently. It was a powerful challenge to our echo-chamber existence. The Mysteries feel like a further step in this project. Here, Thorpe is presenting us with an honest, sympathetic, and non-judgemental representation of communities in a state of flux. Theatrically, it simply doesn’t have the punch that Confirmation had (I’m still thinking about that one!), but the impulse seems to come from the same place; an insistence that going inside someone else’s experience is a prerequisite to knowing one’s own place in the world.