The Magdalene Mysteries @ St James Church, Piccadilly, London

cast list
Sandra Shirley
Lola Maury
Wanda Caddick
Katharine Yates
Alexandre Achour
Theo Lowe
Vincent Jerome
Thomas Thoroe
Amir Sadari
Katie Draper
Heather Knight
Jessica Martenson
Holly Rose
Maya Sapone
Mircha Mangiacotti

directed by
Jacek Ludwig Scarso
Following a revival of interest in Mary Magdalene, Vocal Emotions Elastic Theatre, a group dedicated to combining music theatre with cutting edge performance, have made her the subject of their latest production.

The Magdalene Mysteries is currently being performed in St James, Piccadilly, though it will later be moving on, first to Rome, and then back to London and the Southwark Playhouse.

The production portrays Mary Magdalene as an independent figure in the evangelical narrative, rather than as the repentant prostitute. The narrative has been put together by fusing a range of historical documents, everything from the four Gospels to Jacobus de Voragines medieval text, The Golden Legend. However, no words other than those to be found in texts ever feature, and this proves to be both a strength and a major weakness for the play.

It is a strength in that it enables a multi-faceted view of Mary to be presented without making outlandish claims. The play presents three ‘shadows’ of Mary who, dancing and gyrating frenetically, their faces veiled, could be interpreted in different ways. On one level they constitute a Greek chorus, but on another they are the three historical figures upon whom the Mary Magdalene we know of today is based, Pope Gregory I having ‘amalgamated’ them all in 591.

In many ways, this makes for a fascinating performance, enabling the audience to witness thoughts which, though never all resting inside one individual, are no less real or important for that. In this piece, Mary Magdalene exists partly as a construct of history, frequently participating in scenes from Jesus life, sometimes witnessing them as an outsider, and on occasions coming face to face with one of her shadows, who form the basis of her own being. She also speaks her thoughts (all from documents) to the audience, the lines being delivered superbly by Sandra Shirley.

The story is told through dance, drama and song. There are quiet moving scenes such as when Mary and Jesus stare each other in the face as they circle each other, and when the Church Father destroys her gospel. The music, based loosely on liturgical songs, and occasionally verging on the ‘Negro spiritual’, is delivered beautifully with Maya Sapone, in particular, producing an awe inspiring sound.

The narrative takes us through Jesus life, then onto Marys subsequent journey to Marseilles, and finally to her own writings and gospel. The production is visually arresting up until the middle section, and includes a rope being crossed from pew to pew to form a ship within which the company travel and sway to Marseilles. It is a shame, therefore, that a performance that places so much emphasis on the visual then presents a final section with virtually no movement. This focuses entirely on Marys own philosophy, but, with nothing to catch the eye, unfortunately fails to sustain interest.

Another fault actually lies in restricting the words to only those to be found in documents. It means that too much is delivered straight to the audience, and any interaction between characters feels highly stylised. I found myself longing, for example, for a few simple exchanges between the apostles on the death of Jesus. Had such moments of utter despair been portrayed in this way, it would have made the following image of Jesus body being carried even more overwhelming.

There are certainly worse ways to spend a summer evening than in a beautiful building, watching a frequently powerful and undoubtedly thought-provoking play. Nevertheless, to my mind, though The Magdalene Mysteries has much to merit it, the script and hence the premise remain too conservative ever to succeed in raising the resulting drama to the heights of the truly ethereal.

The Magdalene Mysteries will be at Southwark Playhouse from 14-19 July 2008

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