31 December 2021

Theatre: Scenes from the Medieval Mystery Plays (The York Cycle) by the Players of St Peter (St Saviour’s, Chalk Farm)


Garry Humphreys sees a production by The Players of St Peter in a parish church

IT IS a pleasure to report that the Mystery play is alive and well — and not only in Ambridge. The Players of St Peter, who began life 75 years ago at St Peter’s, Cornhill, in the City of London, have had various locations over the years, but are now based at St Saviour’s, Chalk Farm, in north-west London, where they presented four performances of this year’s offering, a “director’s cut” featuring four of the 48 plays in the York Cycle, which, complete, depicts biblical events from creation to the last judgement.

These plays — originally sponsored by craft guilds whose names live on in the titles — were The Spicers’ Play (The Annunciation and Visitation), The Pewterers’ and Founders’ Play (Joseph’s Trouble about Mary), The Tile Thatchers’ Play (The Nativity), and The Masons’ and Goldsmiths’ Play (The Magi).

The group’s long tradition clearly shows in the ease with which roles were dispatched: serene Mary, benign Gabriel, Joseph not easily convinced that his wife’s baby had come from God (“Nay, some man in angel’s likeness with some game has her beguiled”), the Magi, one of whom was a woman; and minor characters, no doubt thanks to Gill Taylor’s expert direction, fully engaged with the action — the expressive ox and ass, the kings’ servant shaking his arm back to life after carrying the heavy box of gifts; the star held high on a pole, all this often reminiscent of Shakespeare’s rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The music — with solo soprano, recorders, violin, cittern and percussion — was immaculately played by The Mystery Band, with the singer Helen Garrison, and at a small pipe organ was Paul Nicholson, former associate director of the London Handel and Tilford Bach Festivals, whom St Saviour’s is so fortunate now to have as its Vicar. But the actors sang, too (rather well), in impressive costumes, and we all stood to join in The Sussex Carol at the end.

It seems to me that Mystery plays — in the 15th and 16th centuries the most popular and enduring form of public entertainment in Britain, before theatres as we now know them came to be built — could at Christmas come to rival the traditional pantomime for good family entertainment, accentuating the true meaning of Christmas in a now largely secular (and, in the case of the pantomime, celebrity-obsessed) world. Perhaps The Archers, doing this very thing, will draw wider attention to this wonderful, often funny, frequently moving genre, and to groups such as The Players of St Peter, who do it so splendidly.


24 December 2021

15 December 2021

Stephen Hough

In The Observer, 21 November 2021

‘It was a reminder of how important a cog music is in life. Don’t take it for granted. Tell our political leaders it’s not just entertainment. Not just icing on the cake. It’s the cake itself. It’s human life.’


From The Conversation, 15 December 2021:

Conservative MP rebellion: ‘human rights’ opposition to new COVID measures doesn’t add up

Alan Greene

Reader in Constitutional Law and Human Rights, University of Birmingham

The UK government’s introduction of new restrictions to deal with the ‘omicron emergency’ has prompted backlash from some politicians. When the changes were put to the House of Commons, 99 Tory MPs voted against the plans. Several expressed concern over the impact measures such as having to show proof of vaccination to enter certain venues would have on people’s ‘civil liberties’. They have essentially been invoking human rights arguments to oppose pandemic emergency powers. However, their opposition is based on a misguided and libertarian understanding of the nature of human rights.

Such libertarian opposition to the new restrictions can be seen from some MPs’ recent commentary. Conservative MP Steve Baker, who is in the Covid Recovery Group and a vocal backbencher, accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of creating a ‘miserable dystopia’ by bringing back rules on face masks and testing and introducing vaccine passes.

Libertarians essentially argue that human rights prevent the state from acting or interfering with your freedom. Any interference to which you do not consent is an act of aggression and is therefore illegitimate. In my book Emergency Powers in a Time of Pandemic, I argue that libertarian understandings of rights as only restricting the power of the state are inappropriate for dealing with a pandemic.

On the face of it, human rights such as those in the European Convention on Human Rights and incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act 1998 appear to require non-intervention by the state. Everyone has the right to life, everybody has the right to liberty, everybody has the right to privacy, everybody has the right to freedom of expression. Essentially, the state should just leave people alone.

A pandemic, however, actually requires states to be more active, taking positive steps to protect human rights.

For example, the right to life enshrined in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights does not simply require states to refrain from taking people’s lives, it also requires states to protect people from ‘real and immediate risks’. Likewise, the state must spend resources and implement measures to ensure that conditions in state-run institutions (like hospitals and prisons) do not deteriorate to the level that they infringe on people’s rights to humane treatment.

If MPs truly want to protect people’s rights, they should be in favour of a robust pandemic response. A person cannot exercise their other rights if their right to life is not protected. A human rights law limiting the state’s ability to protect people from a deadly threat would not be of much value. Rather than conceiving of human rights law as simply stipulating non-intervention by a state, the key to the success of the human rights movement is its ability empower or ‘emancipate’ people. This places strong obligations on states to protect and vindicate people’s rights.

Whose rights matter?

At the time of the vote, over 800 people had died within the past seven days from COVID-19. While these numbers appear relatively low when compared with the height of the pandemic, they are significantly higher than the deaths caused by other threats that have prompted the British state to enact draconian powers. From April 2003 to March 2020, for example, 95 people were killed in terrorist-related incidents in England and Wales.

It is striking that, while they are opposing new COVID-19 restrictions on a civil liberties basis, MPs are reluctant to voice concerns over other legislation that clearly infringes on human rights. On the very same day as the vote, the government proposed striking changes to the 1998 Human Rights Act, including restricting the right to family life to make it easier to deport people.

Conservative MPs also recently voted through legislation allowing the home secretary to strip people of their British citizenship without notice, and substantially curtailing the right of people to protest — a fundamental right in any democracy.

At best, this is inconsistency. At worst, it is rank hypocrisy.

The reason for this can be boiled down to an ‘us v. them’ mindset. Ultimately, it is the idea that most of ‘us’ – ‘ordinary’, law-abiding people – will feel that counterterrorist powers do not affect us, or that we ourselves are not at risk of being deported. Instead, we view these kinds of human rights restrictions as only impacting the rights of the ‘other’ — the terrorist, the undeserving. In contrast, the effects of COVID emergency powers apply to everyone.

While this distinction explains opposition to some rights restrictions but not others, it cannot justify this inconsistency. This idea of those deserving versus those undeserving of civil liberties has no place in human rights. We have rights by virtue of the fact that we are human, not simply because we are good citizens.