An Update

Regretfully, our planned production project, ‘A Journey with Jonson’, will no longer be taking place this November.  There is a range of reasons for this, and in conjunction with the decision to initially postpone this project, HIDden Theatre shall be taking a hiatus until the new year.

A factor in this situation has been our limited core team, both in terms of staff numbers and areas of expertise.  We still really believe in our mission statement: HIDden Theatre aims to enrich the lives of audience members and creative participants through stories from and about the past; and will return to working towards it in 2017.  In the meantime, if anyone has any ideas to help us move forward (both practically and creatively) we welcome any contributions, equally if you have no specific thoughts but would like to get involved and bring some new views and enthusiasm to the table please feel free to get in touch via our contact form on the About Us page.

Playwrights & Poets

Following recent discussions surrounding figures such as Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, our Artistic Director (Laura Elizabeth Rice) began thinking about the crafts and terminology of ‘poets’ and ‘playwrights’. Here are some of her thoughts.

“[T]he script of a play is intended primarily for the use of professional performers. Unlike the novelist and the poet, the playwright has been counting on other people to mediate between his words and his public.” (Ronald Hayman, How to Read a Play).

The distinction between poet and playwright is particularly interesting in a historical context. Today, we see them as quite discrete things, and if you asked most people if and how they were different, they would likely have a clear answer. In the early modern period, the people who wrote plays saw themselves as poets. Many of them wrote things other than dramas – verse, treatises, musings, etc. – and made their living by the pen in varied contexts; and of course plays were generally written in verse at the time. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the invention of the term “playwright” to Ben Jonson, who used it in his “Epigram 49”… as an insult. Wrights were craftsmen – ploughwrights made ploughs, cartwrights wagons, etc. Their trades may have been highly specialised, but they worked with their hands, and were therefore seen in the time as a cut or two below poets, who, if they were to make a living out of their work, generally had associations with the upper class and nobility through the system of patronage. (This was, after all, an era when the middle class was just beginning to solidify as a level of social stratigraphy.)

While Jonson’s term might have been intended as a snub, it was also percipient. A playwright is a skill of putting things together quite specifically. Beneath the exterior words, there are particular ways plays get built to achieve their desired effect; it doesn’t just happen by accident. There are entire books (such as the one quoted above) dedicated to teaching readers how to understand what’s going on under the skin of a play script, to be conscious of the deliberate decisions the writer has made. (There are even more books dedicated to teaching people how to write plays.) By today’s standards, being a “playwright” indicates the many subtleties and abilities involved, rather than “playwrite”, which would imply merely someone who wrote plays, as if that was quite a simple thing to do. This is not to suggest that poetry is any less deliberate or consciously planned, but that plays do not operate in the same entirely free creative space that poetry does. There are inherent restrictions, in very functional dramatic terms, which don’t usually need to be considered when creating poems.

Whether they see themselves as poets or craftsmen, people who write plays have an extra burden not put on those who write words that are intended to remain on the page. They also have to be collaborators, in temperament if not in actuality. They know from the beginning that their work, putting words to the page, is actually only the beginning of an entire process; they intend for their words to be read, analysed, dissected, internalised, embodied, and performed. In some cases, of course, the writer is the performer (let’s remember that Shakespeare was also an actor), and in a one-person show, it’s possible to skip the extra layer of input. In most cases, though, and certainly in all historic dramas that I can think of, at the very least there are other actors taking on some of the text. Generally, today, there is also a director, and a whole host of people of various creative disciplines at work in translating the page to the stage. A writer knows that once he’s done putting words to the page, someone else takes over. The play requires him to begin, but it requires others to come to completion. It takes a village to raise a play, and the writer may or may not have any input once he writes a figurative ‘the end’ on the last page.

But, of course, this is all a question of whether a play is only complete when in performance, and it draws a line of distinction between an audience of non-theatre professionals, and that interior to the profession: the first “audience” for a play are the directors and actors who are considering/staging it. No matter how many interpretive layers eventually lie between the playwright and the eventual performance, it begins on paper. Some plays seem to be written with this as the focal aspect (I’m thinking, for example, of the profusion of complicated staging directions in The Glass Menagerie, which are usually summarily ignored by directors, and therefore seem more of use to someone who intends only to read the play and may need help ‘picturing it’), while others may be seen as hard going on the page yet come to life beautifully on stage (an assertion that has been levelled at Jonson’s plays). A playwright, in a sense, is therefore tasked with creating a work for multiple audiences, in different media, with a single work.

Given all of these complexities, it’s ironic that Jonson intended “playwright” to be a demeaning term in comparison to that of “poet”. The multifaceted expectations with which a writer of plays must cope, within the limitations of language and dramatic necessity, make it a craft indeed, in the modern sense: a highly specialised, artisanal skill which requires hard work and learning, of creating something from nothing in a creative manner within a general framework. He got it right, after all.

Remembering Shakespeare, an Historic Dramatist

In reaction to the recent events marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on the place of his work in culture and history.

Right now, you can barely turn around without running into a reference to Shakespeare. The 400th anniversary of his death this year has made him utterly ubiquitous. But, really, isn’t he always? His language, his writing, is so woven into our everyday speech we don’t even realise it; he is the cultural fabric. Even if you’ve never seen a single one of his plays, I guarantee you know at least something about them.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I really enjoy a good Shakespeare play. Really, the only reason HIDden hasn’t tackled one thus far is because, in the beginning, we were aiming specifically to perform lesser-known historic drama, and if there’s one thing Shakespeare is not, it’s forgotten. At this point, the reason is far less to do with any winnowing down by popularity and more because none of his plays have quite fit into our trajectory, but I expect at some point that will change and he’ll show up in our programming.

But one thing that has always fascinated me about Shakespeare is his singularity. Shakespeare is somehow outside of categorisation – we don’t think of him primarily as a writer of verse plays, although he certainly is that, and we don’t consider him first as an early modern dramatist, although, inarguably, he is that, too. Shakespeare manages to stand alone, and is often used as a yardstick against which other plays and writers are measured, particularly historically. Shakespeare’s contemporaries, some of whom wrote excellent work, are always found wanting when compared to him, if they are remembered at all. They are only ever looked upon as historic drama – and dismissed as such, when compared to the yardstick of Shakespeare.

I’ve seen this question of why posed in various books and articles, and a few solutions thrown out as possibilities, but in the end, no one ever really seems to have a solid answer. Perhaps there is no answer to “why Shakespeare” because there is seldom only one reason for anything. It’s a confluence of circumstances and, once the pattern is established, it tends to keep feeding its own momentum. These days, it would be impossible not to see Shakespeare as the definition of the literary canon, because we have all grown up in a world with educational systems which teach us that he is, and we can’t escape that.

All of this means that I think we sometimes lose sight of Shakespeare as an historic subject. Not merely his “history plays”, but all of his work, is the product of a specific time, and I sometimes wonder what we lose in our eagerness to claim him “for all time”, as Ben Jonson wrote in the preface to the First Folio. This is not an argument that Shakespeare’s plays, or those of his fellows, need always be styled as Elizabethan or Jacobian. Rather, that if we want to understand all of what these plays can say to us today, we need to understand what they were attempting to say to the audiences for whom they were created. This is true of all drama. In this, Shakespeare is anything but singular.

Report from the Field: ‘Dare To Tell: Silence and Saying in Ben Jonson’ Conference in St. Andrews

Just before we went into production for our ‘Mankind’ revival run a few of us attended a conference on Ben Jonson with a view to expanding our historic drama horizons. The following is what our Artistic Director took away from the event.

Right now, you can hardly turn around in theatrical England without being reminded that it’s the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s also the four hundred anniversary of the publication of the folio of Ben Jonson’s works, an anniversary that has had much less attention. This is just variation on a longstanding theme: Jonson exists so much in his contemporary’s shadow. Trying to bring him out of this relative obscurity is one of the hopes of Jonson scholars. Since my own specialism suffers a similar fate, I sympathise with them – and, in fact, medieval drama and Jonson do in many ways dovetail together nicely (something I hope to explore further in the future).

The ‘Dare to Tell’ conference in St Andrews was organised in celebration of this Jonsonian anniversary. Like all academic conferences, the papers ranged over quite a lot of territory, from literature to performance to cultural reception. And, like all specialist conferences, it was a reminder that being “reasonably familiar” with Jonson’s works and career is not the faintest patch on the knowledge of true experts, and there is a lot to be learned. Here, then, are some of the ideas introduced at the conference – it is only a skimming of the surface of the depth of study out there!

The meaning of space was the subject of a paper by Laura Swift, particularly with respect to the play The Devil is an Ass. In the play, she argued that the interior of houses was connected with tradition, reliability, inherited wealth, and female chastity (the importance of which was tied to concerns for legitimate inheritance), while the street/exterior was symbolic of change, transgression, and wealth that comes through commerce, at a time when early modern (particularly urban) culture was struggling to adjust to the idea of social and economic mobility. Although the discussion was considering the play from a literary angle, it occurred to me these ideas would also be useful to consider in actually staging a production.

Isabel Karremann discussed the issue of memory with respect to Jonson’s many masques. This dramatic form is probably the least accessible of Jonson’s works, because they were intentionally extravagant, expensive performances, usually one-off, created for events such as a royal visit to a noble house; as conspicuous consumption, they weren’t intended for repeat performance. Jonson’s choice to include them in his folio therefore seems to undermine that intention ephemerality, as he must have had some reason for committing them to paper and therefore posterity. Had he not done so, they would exist only as a series of design sketches, and we would know far less about them. It strikes me that this is not just a historical but very modern question: that of whether performance can/should be pinned down on paper. We’re still trying to make sense of that; but what does it tell us, that in this particular case, Jonson thought it worth trying?

Rachel Horrocks discussed the dual role of audience – particularly royal audiences – as spectator and performer at masques, not in their capacity as dramatic participants, but because, as royalty, they were on display when being seen in public. This ‘reciprocal spectatorship’, she argued, had an effect on the performance and its success or failure: other audience members were likely to follow a monarch’s lead, and if the monarch was seen to be enjoying a performance, others would do the same, but if a bored monarch decided to leave the performance, so did everyone else. One can only imagine how challenging this situation must have been to those trying to put together a performance, and some of Jonson’s masques, she suggested, were created in such a way as to try to find ways that subverted this ‘mutual performance’ phenomenon.

An interesting episode in Jonson’s life, his “foot journey” or very, very long walk from London to Edinburgh, fairly recently discovered, was discussed by Anna Groundwater, who has worked on the project studying the journey. A travelling companion kept something of a diary of the event, but there is still a lot about it which is unknown, including why it happened. Groundwater suggested that Jonson was hoping to get idea material from it for future writing projects, and that he may have strategised his route to curry favour with possible patrons along the way, but that there might have been a diplomatic aspect to it as well, with the King hoping that Jonson would bring back news and information acquired along the way, particularly from Scotland and the ongoing politics within its church.

Martin Butler’s discussion of the many ways in which Jonson has appeared in twentieth and twenty-first century culture was especially interesting to me, because when you’re creating a production, you’re not doing so in a vacuum, but within the context of that play’s own past and baggage. The older the play, the more permutations this may have gone through – how the Georgians or Victorians felt about, or performed, Jonson’s works has influenced opinion of his work down to today. Although Jonson was reasonably prolific, almost all of his visibility in the past century came down to two plays, Volpone and The Alchemist. Butler commented that most reviews of Jonson’s plays, when they are performed, boil down to the ‘surprising’ revelation that his plays aren’t dull and are actually very entertaining – which is promptly forgotten thereafter, until the next review says exactly the same thing. This was particularly interesting because it’s one more way that Jonson seems to be an early-modern parallel to my experiences with medieval drama.

We went to the conference as a chance to spread out drama-historical wings a bit, and it definitely did. Maybe you wouldn’t normally dive into the expert end of the pool as a starting point, but it was nice to get an idea for what’s going on in at least one corner of early modern drama studies, to get a sense of the richness lying within. And it was very much a reminder that the early modern period is not a seismic shift from the medieval but rather a bridge, neither the same thing nor entirely dissimilar either. The same could be said about Renaissance and modern drama, too: theatre history is not so much a direct evolution as a spectrum. I hope we will have the chance to put some of what we learned and have thought about since into practice, and that we will revisit Jonson and his contemporaries in the future.

Director’s Notes: Wrapping up ‘Mankind’

This week our Artistic Director reflects on coming to the end of our Mankind revival run.

Although I love the adrenaline rush of opening night, I’ve always been a bit partial to closing night. There is something about the end of a run that brings out the best in everyone. Actors pull out something that they’ve been unconsciously holding in reserve, and of course there is a certain emotional component to the end of something that has dominated your life for a length of time.

One way or another, we’ve spent the better part of half a year with [this production of] Mankind, and after our four-performance run this past weekend, it’s time to put it to bed. Although I’m sure we’ll all enjoy a few more free moments in the week, I for one will miss it. I’ll miss the cast, and the journey we’ve taken together. I’ll miss the planning and the imagining what it will be like.

There are two particularly gratifying aspects to this show as I look back over it. The first is how amazing the cast was. This was a very varied group of people, and they did a great amount in very little time. The amount of work they put in was incredible, and this show, perhaps particularly in that there was such a visible trajectory upwards from our first readings together. I have absolutely loved watching them evolve from rehearsal to rehearsal, or even throughout an individual one. Although I have acted, I’m not really an actress, and I continue to marvel at the way they sink deeper and deeper into a character, making it come to life moment by moment. There is something in their process that defies explanation: you can see it, you know it’s there, but I’m not sure it can be put to words explicitly. But it makes the show. Our Mankind cast really found the ebbs and flows, the different emotional moments and shifts, in the play, and brought them to life.

The second was the audience. Hearing their comments as they left the theatre, and seeing the smiles on their faces, made every moment worthwhile. Some were medieval drama veterans who were enjoying seeing a non-mystery-play in York for a change; many of them commented on how interesting they found the modern spin on the play. I’m always especially happy to see the reactions of those who aren’t as familiar with the genre, because we put a lot of effort into making the play accessible to them, and their comments on how much they had liked it meant a lot. I would love to have more and more people realise just how much fun a play like Mankind can be, and I hope that the next time these folks have a chance, they will see more.

Saying goodbye to Mankind means saying goodbye to our cast and the project, but also, for HIDden, to the Middle Ages for a spell. I’m looking forward to new projects and new eras, but I wonder when this play, or any of its peers, will call us back. After all, even after a revival, there are depths unplumbed. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll come back to it. But for now, Mankind, we bid you a fond farewell, with thanks for all the memories.

Director’s Notes: Space & the Actor

As opening night for our ‘Mankind’ revival run approaches we have moved rehearsals into the performance venue. Our Artistic Director has noticed this take quite an effect on the cast she is directing. Here are her some of her thoughts and reflections.

I’ve written before about space, and the way that it can shape and inform a production. What I’ve been contemplating this week, as we’ve moved from Brackenhill Creative Space (which is sadly now closed) into The Studio Theatre at Upstage Centre, is how space makes a difference to the actors and their characters.

It’s kind of obvious that an actor moves through, in and around the space given to them; they are a part of it, and they react to it in various ways. This means that any change in space requires a certain degree of readjustment and reconsideration; and changes are inevitable (unless one is in the rare, lucky position to have the performance space for rehearsal as well). Actors are pretty good about managing it, but of course it’s a challenge for them, particularly as the space is usually being built and adjusted all around them during the first few days.

This has been true with our production of Mankind – while we’re not exactly hanging lights right above their heads as they rehearse, bits and pieces are coming in in dribs and drabs, and we’re all having to adjust accordingly. Stage block number one is too big – bring in a smaller one. The space in front of the audience is much bigger than expected, so use it, but get used to a longer walk if you need to get back to the center. How are the acoustics backstage? How long does it take to cross from entrance three to entrance four [we are performing in thrust by the way]? It all gets worked out, but it takes a bit of work on everyone’s part.

It can also affect characters, to some extent, as well. The Vices in particular are quite mobile and expansive in their motions, and they’re having to adjust to a stage with multiple levels, which means some of the wild flinging-around needs to be tempered for safety’s sake. Mercy’s “congregation’ now surrounds the stage in a totally different manner than was possible in the rehearsal space, and he is having to become accustomed to remembering the people in the far corners, which in some ways seems at odds with a character who is more emotionally and spatially grounded than the helter-skelter demons.

In some medieval plays, space and character were intimately connected. For example, in The Castle of Perseverance, various characters had a performance space (presumably a bit like a small stage on scaffolding) assigned specifically to them, and so moments when they moved outside of it, or into another’s sphere, had very particular meaning. We have, for the most part, chosen to blur the spaces as much as possible: Titivillus and Mercy “own” the same entrance/exit, for example; the actors move freely on and off the raised stage, to be more connected to the audience; the Vices can sit where Mercy leaves his Bible. The point in doing this was the emphasize that good and evil are not the province of particular types of people, that things which we perceive as positive may have a sting in their tail, and evil can easily look charming. By letting the actors use as much space as they can, the characters have an entire world to assign to their own purposes. And they do: Mankind’s patch of land may be the small bit of grass we see, or the entire stage, while the realms of Mercy and the Vices are entirely the same place.

It’s been lovely to get into the proper space and have room for the actors to move about, because it helps them fulfill one of the primary goals of a morality play: highlighting the fact that their story is about everyone. While we’ve asked Mankind to create a specific character and sense of self for our production, the character never the less represents the whole of humanity. (As we often joke: when there is something that needs working on with Mankind, someone inevitably responds, “All of mankind? I don’t think we have time for that!”) His world is also the world of the Vices, and of the forgiveness of Mercy, and of us. In morality plays, all the world really is a stage, and all of these characters can use the space of the theatre to tell us that.

Director’s Notes: Reviving and Revising Expectations

As we return to the rehearsal room with our Mankind cast, the director of the upcoming revival shares some of her thoughts.

Recently we jumped into rehearsals with the Mankind revival cast. It was really nice to get to work, to see where the returning cast are with the parts they already know, and to find out how they and the new folks will work together. Most gratifying is seeing how everyone works together, and starting to learn how everyone works, as individuals and as an ensemble.

This project is hardly unprecedented in the world of theatre. It’s not at all unusual for an actor or a director to return to something they’ve worked on previously. In many cases it will be many years apart, with a different company or group of actors. In those cases, while still a ‘revival’ of a play, it’s essentially a new production. [See my earlier post on Defining our Revival for more on this topic]

Something like what we’re doing with Mankind is quite different. A cast mixed of veterans and newcomers, an attempt not to stray too far from last autumn’s performance while still making improvements (because you can always improve something!), and a familiarity not diluted by time all contribute to an interesting cluster of challenges to face down. The biggest of these is simply reevaluating and redefining expectations to acknowledge that difference is totally acceptable.

The greatest factor is of course the actors. Each person brings not only their own personal quirks, but different strengths and weaknesses, and individual ways of approaching their work. Even if you end up with similar performances in the end, the process to getting there probably won’t be much the same between two people. While this might seem obvious, it means that the returning cast members not only have to re-learn the relationships between their characters, they have to do it in a slightly different way, and the director has to find ways to facilitate this that work for both. Moreover, the director has to be conscious from the beginning that the way to handle situations will be different, and that the methodology used last time might not work at all for this round. Maybe your first actor was spectacularly good at conveying character through voice and your new one demonstrates the character in a more physical manner. Both had a talent to use, and a weakness to work on, but filling in the gaps and refining the initial skills are going to be radically different between them.

In any revival, but especially one with a partially new cast mixed with ‘veterans’, everyone returning has to accept, right off the bat, that it will be a different performance. It’s not fair to expect Actor B to replicate the part precisely to what Actor A did previously. It’s all too easy to get into the habit of remembering how a part was portrayed the first time, and making comparisons, but it’s not at all useful to sit there and think, “But Actor A did it differently.” Of course she did, and that’s okay. As several writers, most of whom had one foot in theatre’s door- Lydgate, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Donne- have said, “Comparisons are odious”. They’re also a very human thing to do, but it’s something you have to try to nip in the bud before it becomes a problem. Every actor deserves the chance to create a role in the way that works best for them, to achieve the desired end, and that end should be based on the needs of the character as written and the play, not on the portrayal created by someone else. After all, there isn’t one “right” way to do a play, and different interpretations can be equally valid and compelling. This will also make changes to the performances of the returning actors, because they have to adjust to a new dynamic as well.

But, lest this sound problematic, it’s worth pointing out that this is also one of the things which makes theatre fun. Watching the infinite permutations, the different styles and characters of people, finding your way through the thicket of ideas, expectations, practices, outcomes…. That is, surely, a big part of why we do this. Getting to know new people and their work, working with colleagues you’ve known for years, trying new things and revisiting the familiar, it’s all grist to the mill, and keeps us all on our creative toes.

We are off to a good start with this revived production. I hope everyone else is feeling as enthusiastic as I am, and as excited to see where this journey forwards and backwards will take us together.

A Post-Show Event for our ‘Mankind’ Revival

We are pleased to announce that there will be an aftershow talk and discussion following the Friday evening performance of our ‘Mankind’ revival.  It will be facilitated by our Artistic Director, and director of the production, Laura Elizabeth Rice.

There is no need to book for the event itself, simply reserve a seat for the show and then join us after the performance on Friday 15th April.

More details to follow.

Making Mischief – An Interview with a ‘Mankind’ cast member

As we continue to get ready for our upcoming Mankind revival, we sat down to have a chat with one of our actors. Kate Thomas is playing Mischief, one of the demonic, vice characters of the play. She’s worked with HIDden in the past, as well. Kate is also a proper medievalist who studies Anglo-Saxon literature and liturgy, so she has a unique perspective on acting in medieval dramas. (She’s also our go-to person for tricky Latin advice!)

How did you get interested in medieval drama?

I studied English Literature as an undergrad at Durham, and during my second year I got into medieval literature and started going down that path. John McKinnell did ‘Hickscorner’ in my third year, just as I was starting to really focus on medieval lit, and I got interested. So when I came to York to my MA in medieval literature in 2005, I joined the Lords of Misrule, the grad school’s medieval drama group. I was hoping they’d be part of the 2006 Mystery Plays – that was part of why I joined – but they didn’t do it that year. I had to wait until 2010, when I was one of the Lords waggon crew cast.

What sort of roles have you done?

Let’s see… Going way back, I was Sylvius in As You Like It, and I was Starveling the Tailor in Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was a villager in Penumbra Mortis – that was probably my favourite play with Lords, although it wasn’t my favourite role. I was the evil witch, Kalla, in Eyrbyggja Saga. And of course I was an angel in 2014 for The Baptism. Actually, I do really like Mischief, I think it’s been most interesting.

What do you find most challenging and interesting about playing Mischief?

He’s kind of evil, really! It’s a welcome change. It’s fun trying to figure out how to play him, because it’s not always clear. I’m doing it as a sort of seductive, sophisticated, feminine figure – a femme fatale almost. Being a death figure helps it make sense, it really works in some of the more sinister moments, but it doesn’t always go so easily with bits where I get frightened or intimidated or I’m mucking around, but it adds some layers to the scarier bits. I can intimidate the Vices with how I kill people – they’re not on that level.

It’s a chance to be evil in a more complicated way. This is a very enigmatic character, it’s not just “I’ll go around killing people”. In some ways because it’s not realistic drama, that makes it more difficult to interpret. I mean, it’s not Iago, who’s enigmatic, but clearly wants to hurt people, but he’s still a person, he has motivations, whereas with Mischief there’s the question of whether or not this even is a human being. It’s almost cartoonish – not in a silly way, but it’s a type, it’s not subtle. But it’s not simplistic or unmotivated, it’s just that the motive is a bit beyond human, whereas the Vices aren’t evil in the same way.

Do you have a favourite scene?

The one after their initial attempts to lure Mankind have gone wrong, when I’m going off and being frightening, and when we’re putting our heads together and plotting. I like the scheming.

You’ve done a fair bit of both medieval and Shakespearean characters. Do you see a difference between Shakespeare & medieval, from an acting standpoint?

I think the real question is what the continuity is! I find it hard to believe that the Shakespearean era wasn’t influenced by other sorts – but that’s when it started going into theatre, wasn’t it? When it went indoors. I think that’s the big change, moving in to places where people had to pay to watch, rather than public spaces. But as an actress it wouldn’t occur to me to treat them differently!

What do you see as the place of medieval drama in modern theatre repertoire?

Hopefully people like it! I like to see it included as much as possible, I don’t like the idea that it could be “out of date” or impossible for people to appreciate today, I don’t do moving on like that. People’s experience should be as wide as possible, not just with drama but with everything.

You’ve worked with HIDden before, what keeps you coming back?

You never know what the next role is going to be like, there’s always something interesting and different about it.

Report From The Field: Performances at the 2016 METh Conference

During the past weekend, our Artistic Director took some leave from working on our revival of ‘Mankind’ to attend the Early English Drama & Performance Network and Medieval English Theatre conferences. Her personal thoughts from the events follow and we will be back with more on ‘Mankind’ next week.

If you follow us on Twitter, you’ve probably noticed that I was at a conference this weekend. (Technically, this year, a pair of one-day conferences.) I tend to think of METh (Medieval English Theatre) as the “annual pilgrimage”, when Britain’s medieval drama scholars – and some aficionados from outside formal academia – make their way to a gathering spot, to spend some time sharing new research and discoveries, exchanging ideas, seeing performances, making new contacts, and generally checking in with the current state of the field.

I’ve been going to METh for about eight years now. It has a wonderful way of both changing and staying the same. On the latter front, there is much of the “old home week” about it: most of us only see one another once or twice a year, and it’s a much-appreciated opportunity to catch up with people you not only respect as colleagues, but also consider friends. The papers are always fascinating – and remarkably diverse. You might think that in such a small, specific field, there’d be a limit to the directions study could take, but there seemingly isn’t. Every year you can learn something new. And, in the ‘new’ column is the fact that this was the first year where METh met as an official society. For the most part that doesn’t change the way things function, but it does mean that there is now an organisation that you can join to formally be part of this community and keep up with what’s going on, if you’re interested in medieval drama. The other change I’ve noticed is that, where a few years ago I was the “baby” of the group, there is now a decent percentage of postgraduate scholars and early-career researchers in the field, which is a healthy sign for the future.

As I realise that most of you aren’t medieval academics, I won’t try to give you a précis of every paper given; if you’re curious, do check us out on Twitter for some highlights as they happened. Instead, I want to mention the part of the conference that is probably of most interest to you as theatre fans – the performance. Actually, there were two this year: a one-act play on Friday night, ‘Marge & Jules’, about medieval writers and mystics Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, and on Saturday afternoon, ‘John of Beverley’, a Dutch interlude about a British saint.

‘Marge & Jules’ is a wonderful example of what you can do when creating drama from historical records. Both Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich left their stories to us: Margery’s is considered the first autobiography in English (1430s), and Julian’s is the first book in English by a woman (c. 1395). They’re both interesting as figures, and the obvious parallels and differences in their stories make them a good pairing for study. They did actually meet, and most of the script was taken from their actual writings. It’s less a plot-driven story and more a pair of character studies, but it’s a fantastic example of the way that history almost tells its own stories at times – and the play does a good job of exploiting the gentle humour that we might find in the quirks of these two women, as well as their virtues.

‘John of Beverley’ is less straightforward: an actual English saint who died in the early 8th century, the play is actually early 16th century Dutch, and the METh performance was translated into English. How John made that journey isn’t clear, nor is the way in which his story was transformed into that of the play. And it is a truly bizarre and comic thing. The plot hinges on the pious hermit John being duped by the devil into making the choice to either drink until drunk, or commit more heinous acts, including murder. He decides to get drunk, at which point he commits the other sins anyway, and then repents by becoming a hairy wild man creeping about the forest like an animal, until he is finally given a sign that God forgives him. This description doesn’t even begin to cover what a strange tale it is, and one of the major discussion points after the performance was whether it was intended to be as hilarious as we all found it, or whether it was meant to be taken with a certain degree of genuine piety.

It’s (to me) hard to imagine that any audience could fail to snicker at John’s uncertainty as to whether or not drunkenness was on the same moral par as homicide. I think it’s also worthwhile to consider that, even if the play was, by some chance, meant to be more serious than this production, or our response to it, might suggest, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we, today, have to maintain a serious approach. It was also a good example of the fact that a text which might look merely confusing on paper can be elevated through performance and direction. Little details – the amazing costume for John as the wild man, or the narrator cooing at a baby made from a shawl – made the play utterly hilarious. We don’t often credit medieval or early-modern drama as having a sense of the absurd, but I think that says more about our assumptions about the past and its people than what the evidence shows.

There aren’t all that many opportunities to see medieval plays in action, and METh is one of the rare occasions where I get to do so. It’s also a chance to talk to other people who spend part of their time working on historically informed drama, an equally rare thing. Inevitably there are some interesting debates about approaches: to adapt or translate? To emphasise the medieval or to emphasise the continuity? And there is almost always a point where we acknowledge that, despite all of our efforts in both academic and performative terms, attitudes about ‘medieval drama’ outside of our own specialist enclave seem incredibly hard to shift. These are matters that apply to both medieval drama studies and production. HIDden, in its earliest inception, was our answer: maybe by continuing to force a permeability between those two facets, more people can appreciate and enjoy plays like these, and maybe someday medieval drama can move out of the shadows. Even as HIDden begins to move away itself into a more diverse theatrical path, I still hope we can play a part in that.

For more information on Medieval English Theatre, the organisation and the publication, as well as future events, please visit: