St Just Ordinalia 2021: medieval mystery plays with a very contemporary message

‘It’s like no other drama you’ll ever see, local, down-to-earth and absolutely gorgeous to look at. Don’t miss it’
Old Mike, The Cornishman

‘The spirit of St Just’s Ordinalia should be bottled up and made available on the National Health’
Ted Lean, Project Director

The cast of the 14th Century Ordinalia trilogy performed at St Just this September delivered with spades the aim of the original performances to impress the Christian bible stories on the local population.

Presented at St Just’s Plen an Gwari, the oldest working open air theatre space in Britain, the Ordinalia plays, although similar to the mystery plays of the North of England, are unique to Cornwall and an important part of the heritage of St Just in Penwith, and the far South West. They are the oldest surviving trilogy of theatrical plays in Britain. Last performed in 2004, it is hoped to offer them in future on a 3/4 year cycle.

Each of the three plays – Origo Mundi (the Creation), The Passion and The Resurrection – were performed five times, with audiences of up to 600 at each – so probably reaching at least 7-8000 people. School and college groups attended and special resource packs were developed for educational use – providing much interesting background on the history of the plays, the surviving manuscripts and Cornish language, These are all available online at https://www.stjustordinalia.com/.

The plays draw on Biblical material and on apocryphal stories circulating at the time – such as the Harrowing of Hell, the Death of Pilate, and the Smith and the Nails. They also incorporated the legend of the Holy Rood into the narrative, allowing each day’s play to contain a number of interconnected stories. This motif, which is found in some Continental plays, does not play a significant part in other surviving English Mystery plays.

In parallel with the event, Kresen Kernow, the Cornish archives centre in Redruth, mounted a special temporary exhibition Out of the Ordinary uniting The Cornish Ordinalia and The Creation of the World (on loan from the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford) with The Life of St Meriadoc/Bewnans Meriasek and The Life of St Kea/Bewnans Ke (on loan from the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth) under one roof  for the first time in history. The manuscripts form a very significant part of Cornwall’s written and language heritage, as well as providing glimpses of a distinct theatrical tradition which took place here centuries ago.

Over 250 volunteers from the local community, led by a small team of professional actors also hailing from the district, were involved in this remarkable and memorable production. A filmed version will be avialable later in the year. Although not designed as an evangelistic outreach, the plays will undoubtedly have brought the Bible narratives alive to many who had not heard, or thought much about them before; and a very contemporary message was underlined in the linking material delivered by the ‘Ordinary’ or narrator/director, who at the end of the final play closed with these words:

And so our trilogy is ended: but our story is not yet over. It is also written that God offered his trust to the heaven and the earth and the mountains but they refused to carry it, and man carried it. Consider this: the heavens bring water, and temperature; the earth receives seed, and bears fruit; the mountains convert common stone to tin and gold. These tasks bewilder human reason. Man has only one task: look after the very earth itself, and all of the life on it.

So man has only one task: to look after the earth, and all the creatures, plants and people on it. If he does not perform this task, then he has nothing. Everything that God created, he entrusted to you, the children of Adam, who took the knowledge of choice from a tree in paradise. So: are you for paradise? Or are you on the road to hell? Think on!

So now let the minstrels play: for Jesus is in heaven and all is well. Remember though: there’s always Judgement Day…

A very clear challenge to us all as we approach COP26!

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