Director’s Notes: Why Revive ‘Mankind’?

This week Laura, our Artistic Director, explains some of the reasons behind our upcoming revival of ‘Mankind’.

Given that there are several pages of “that would be an interesting project” lists in the HIDden files, it might come as a surprise that we’re dusting off Mankind and putting it on again. Although it is one of my favourite medieval English plays, there are a lot of reasons beyond that for why it’s coming back, and we thought it would be nice to let you in on our logic.

Our production last November was something we were really proud of. In our ideal world, it would not have been a one-off performance. Circumstances beyond our control, meant that we had to limit the performance to a single evening. And that was a shame, because we knew that there were lots of people who had wanted to come but could not be there on that one and only night. Moreover, we have a brilliant cast who put a lot of hard work and energy into the play, and they deserved more than one night’s showing of what they’d created. So we were toying with the idea that we might bring it out again, even before that performance happened.

Another major factor was an unexpected opening in our calendar. We had been in discussion with Charles Hunt about putting on the York Fall of Angels this spring, to go along with the Mystery Plays taking part in the Minster during the mid-summer. In 2012 we worked with Charles to produce The Noah Play on a waggon in the streets of York, as an adjunct to the large-scale production in St Mary’s Abbey. It was a nice reminder that the plays have a dual history, and that both forms have come to have a place in York’s heart and history. We were looking forward to doing it again.

Sadly, Charles passed away suddenly in November, on the day that Mankind was performed. We didn’t think that it would be right to continue with The Fall of Angels without him, as it had been his brainchild in the beginning, and so we were suddenly left without a spring project. With the cast still nearby and probably able to remember the production easily, it made sense to use the space for the theoretical revival of Mankind. The production is dedicated to Charles’ memory, not only because of the timing, but because if he had been in better health we felt he would have made a wonderful member of the cast. We knew he wouldn’t be able to take on that project, but one of Charles’s great gifts was for fostering new talent, and we’re sure he would have approved of how the character turned out.

Staging another medieval play in some proximity to the Mystery Plays, which have evolved far beyond their twentieth century status as “medieval revivals” into being a modern phenomenon in their own right, was important to us as a way of continuing to give the community a connection to the historic aspects of the plays of that era. But (without getting into the academic arguments about an evolutionary model of drama development) we are also looking at Mankind as a step forward in theatre, too. We are hoping it will be part of a greater exploration of some of the directions morality plays took as time went along.

Not all decisions are written in moonlight and dreams, some are utterly practical and hard-headed. In most respects, the revival of Mankind comes from that sort of pragmatism. But that’s not to say we aren’t excited about it. It will be nice to get this wonderful group back together, and to share this very funny and occasionally sweet story with more of you! We hope you’ll be there with us to see it!

Director’s Notes: Repeat, Replay

In anticipation of our revival of Mankind our Artistic Director contemplates the revisiting of art.

“That’s one thing that’s always… been a major difference, between the performing arts, to me, and being a painter… A painter does a painting, and he does a painting, that’s it, you know? He’s had the joy of creating it and he hangs it on some wall somewhere, somebody buys it, somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it… but nobody ever says to him, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, “Paint ‘A Starry Night’ again, man!”-Joni Mitchell

That quote is at the beginning of a recording of a song I’ve listened to over and over again – literally thousands of times, I’m sure, over the past twenty-five years. (“Circle Game”, on Miles of Aisles). I’m that person who will play a song on loop for days, or weeks. So I appreciate the spirit Mitchell is talking about – that some things are so loved, we return to them again and again and again. But it was only last week that I really stopped to think about it, and I came to the conclusion that “finished” art actually isn’t, and that you don’t truly perform the same thing over and over again, even if it may initially seem that way. And it seemed relevant, as we are preparing to return to Mankind again, to share that with you.

In fact, art (by which I mean “fixed” art- painting, sculpting, etc. – something where there is a tangible end product) is reproduced all the time. Today it is also photographed and digitised, but you can still see art students in galleries learning their craft through copying the masters. You’ve probably seen “Starry Night” on coffee mugs, or calendars. Is it the same thing as the original? Of course not, but you’d still recognise what it was – much like seeing two different performances of the same play. Different brush strokes, same overall impression.

Moreover, although we tend to see a painting as simply existing, that is not enough: like performance, it has an audience. There is a viewer who interacts with it in some fashion, even if that is just a glance; they contemplate what it means, or are captivated by its colours. Visual art is exactly that: meant to be seen. And just like a play, a different audience on a different occasion will see different things. Maybe the lighting will be slightly brighter, or the viewer is sleepy. It will change what they see and how they feel about it. The initial act of painting may be singular – it’s true that Van Gogh only really got to do that specific copy of the painting one time – but between varieties of copying and the long life of the physical painting, it is revisited over and over. The difference, then, between the kind of art you hang on the wall in a museum and the kind you see when you go to a performance is largely a question of tangible durability.

So… we’re coming back to Mankind. I’m not claiming it’s a masterpiece in any way comparable to a Van Gogh painting. But I am rather fond of the production. It’s one of my favourite medieval plays, and the cast are a lovely group of people who bring it to life delightfully. Unlike the performance in November, which was a further step from our initial staged reading in Bristol, we’re not making major changes: we’re pretty happy with the show we have. Last autumn, circumstances meant that we couldn’t give it the run we would have liked it to have. It deserves a wider audience. And so we decided to do it again.

It won’t be exactly the same production, any more than a photograph of “A Starry Night” is “A Starry Night”. Time changes things, and no two performances are identical anyway. We’re in a different venue, one which will speak more to the modern qualities of the production than the medieval. The cast will be slightly different. We’ll probably have the opportunity to perfect a few minor details. But it’s still our Mankind, brought back to life, and maybe with a few small adjustments. I for one can’t wait.

HIDden Theatre Presents ‘Mankind’, a Revival

We are very excited to be reviving our production of Mankind from last Autumn at Upstage Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York for a run of four performances 14th-16th April 2016, 7.30pm with a Saturday matinée at 2.30pm.  The Friday performance will be followed by a post-show talk and discussion.

Join us for a performance of the funniest of English medieval plays! Mankind is the story of a farmer’s temptation away from his work by a group of Vices and demons, intent on getting him hooked on the pleasures of the modern world at the expense of his higher nature. Will he be saved by the loyal friendship of Mercy, or will he give in to the fashionable whims offered him by Mischief, New-Guise, and Nought?

For further information please see our Current Projects page.

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Director’s Notes: Finding Inspiration

Not very long ago, I became acquainted with the monumental time-sink that is Pinterest. I’d heard of it for years, but – and this will tell you everything about my own worldview slant – I could not for the life of me understand why friends were going on about recipes on a webpage clearly named for a playwright (Harold Pinter for the uninitiated). A personal aversion to websites that make you sign up kept me off it for years. But looking at images of medieval demons for Mankind, that website just kept popping up. Curiosity got the better of me, and down the rabbit hole I went.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I started with searches that were in some way linked to the play we were working on. My initial thought was that it could be a sort of appendix to writing and talking about what we were doing. Want to know how medieval peasants appear in artwork, or what kind of chair Jenny Hill might have for The Vital Spark? Head on over. Even if I have no intention of staging a play in its original historical period and trappings, I always use them as a jumping off point for research. The idea that you have to know where a play began before you can start intelligently departing for that place is very central to HIDden in general; it’s the informed part of “historically informed drama”.

Informed, however, is not enough. I started seeing lots of other images that just seemed intriguing, apropos of nothing. Maybe it was a texture (something literally missing in virtual boards, which I regret), or a slant of lighting, or a type of lettering. I started filing those away, without having any intentions for them at all. Very possibly they’ll never find a use. But in the aggregate, they already have. Finding them was a reminder that you can’t just look for what you want to find. Sometimes you have to just… look. Wander. Without an agenda, intention, or map, you might find something that sends you down a different path. That’s the very definition of inspiration.

The challenge, in any artistic field, is making yourself find inspiration. We’re accustomed to thinking of it as a bolt of lightning, something miraculous from out of the blue, and very often it is. But when your work relies on its presence being something of a constant, you have to find ways to trigger that lighting off in the first place. Maybe you can’t always guarantee it to strike right when you need it, but you can create conditions under which it’s more likely to happen. There’s no universal recipe; for me it’s a constant and conscious exercise in trying to notice little, unusual details, casting the net wide in terms of reading and experience, and then making sure that I surround myself with people who keep me on my toes. Around the right people, mundane conversations can be catalytic, and that dynamic is something I always try to cultivate at HIDden, with actors and production teams alike.

When I’m feeling more introverted, I can sit down at the computer and explore some of the world from the seclusion of my office, complete with a cup of tea, and try to create a little bit of electronic brain-lightning. Then I can turn around and share at least a pale snapshot of that moment with you, so that if you are at one of our productions, you can imagine the connections between that initial idea and what ends up on stage. It’s not always a direct path, but from information to inspiration to creation, getting there is half the fun.

Why not stop by and visit these behind-the-scenes idea-gatherings on our Pinterest page?

Director’s Notes: Wrapping Up “Mankind”

Finishing up a show is always a mixture of feelings. Accomplishment. Pride. Exhaustion. And the process of looking back and analysing what went well, and what lessons were learned along the way.

Mankind had numerous highlights. A few weeks ago we noted some along the way, as they’d manifested thus far in the rehearsal process. Many of them carried through to the end. The absolute commitment and enthusiasm of the cast comes in first for mention, as it was both unwavering and crucial to the play’s success. Medieval plays can be hard going for actors: the wording is unusual or foreign, there are lots of long monologues, it’s not always evident what is happening. Our cast did a brilliant job of overcoming any confusion, and the progress with which they learned their lines and characters was remarkable. Every single rehearsal we saw improvement, and their best performance was the one in front of an audience- just what you want to have happen! I’m still in awe of how quickly they assimilated changes and adjustments: these were amateur actors and for the most part they did this as well or even better than many professionals. They brought ideas and tried them out, remained flexible in their thinking, and managed to make it look as if they hadn’t been working flat out for weeks. I really couldn’t be more proud of them.

I also just plain liked our cast as people. It often seems to me that the theatre attracts an unusually high number of interesting, intelligent, kind, generous, and dedicated people. Maybe that’s just the nature of the thing. But it makes work that much more enjoyable. Theatre friendships can be funny- because you all go on immediately to other things, people often don’t stay in touch, but whether we do or not, I consider myself fortunate for having had these people’s lives and work collide with mine, even for a short period of time.

We asked the audience for feedback, as we are in a process of determining where to move forward as a company. Their reception of Mankind was beyond my expectations. I’m especially pleased with the comments from those who don’t know medieval drama and who had come along warily, and were surprised by how accessible and engaging it is. That is exactly why we do this: to share the past in ways that surprise and delight. Any time someone says they learned something new- especially if that something is how interesting historic drama is- I feel like we’ve had a success.

In short, Mankind was everything we’d hoped it could be. If you didn’t have a chance to see it… It’s the kind of play I could certainly keep coming back to. Who knows? Maybe someday it will have another incarnation. And if it does, I can only hope it will be as much fun as this version was to create.

Updating the Style, Keeping the Substance

Translating an archaic script, as previously discussed, is time consuming and requires a bit of effort, but it’s not terribly difficult. The translation that does become a challenge is finding modern idioms, of cultural elements, that are analogous to those appearing in a historic script. The meaning needs to be similar, but the issues that resonate in one period often don’t a few centuries later.

Mankind presents this most particularly in the scene where the Vices try to re-style his jacket into something more up-to-date. Making him an absurdly short coat is only mildly funny today: unless you spend a lot of time on historic costume, you probably won’t realise that ultra-short jackets were the cutting edge of trendiness in the late fifteenth century. For men, the more wealthy and ostentatiously stylish you were, the shorter your jacket was. The trend-setters of the day would have been the younger gentlemen of the court, some of whom may not have come from old, well-established families, and who would be anxious to prove that they could fit in- what might snobbishly be referred to as “new money” today. The playwright of Mankind was parodying both the short style of coats, and also the sort of men who might wear them.

Simply cutting up Mankind’s coat doesn’t mean as much today, though, so we looked for an analogous stylistic language. What is considered trendy today, that might also be singled out for a bit of gentle teasing? What symbolises youth and ambition? Thus were born the hipster Vices. “Hipster” may be a bit difficult to define, but it’s written about as a subculture of young, relatively affluent people who consider themselves nonconformists (but are often noted to do so in the same way as one another), and are criticised for being pretentious; they strive to have a down-market, vintage look but have no aversion to the newest technology.

We didn’t choose this style to be critical of those who embrace it, but because it seemed a good, easily identifiable modern analogy to the ostentatiously trend-setting courtiers of the late medieval period, something that is sufficiently established as a culture/style but also comes in for castigation by others. It also seems to be defined from the outside: not many whom others might consider “hipsters” would self-identify as such, rather like Nought, who worries that he “might well be called a fop”, when clearly he is something of a dandy. And because the hipster style is quite identifiable, it seems likely that it will end up being very dated and of our particular era, much like the short jackets of the era in which Mankind was written.

 

There are always some imperfections in trying to update a concept which is particularly tied to a time and place, but we think that this one makes a lot of sense. It helps ground Mankind in the world of today as much as that of the past, reminding us that people don’t really change that much, and the world of the Middle Ages is not entirely unlike our own.

 

 

Director’s Notes: Mankind: First Rehearsals  

 

Mankind is approaching swiftly, and all of us at HIDden are running about making sure things are in order. The weeks leading up to a production are always exciting, and busy, but I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the more delightful aspects of our process thus far. It’s a snapshot of a bit of our “behind the scenes” life. Here are a few of my favourite moments:

  • While everyone works on Latin pronunciation, during blocking rehearsals we all just shout “Latin!” where a big chunk of it is in the script.
  • Trying out lots of different characterisations for Titivillus- because demons can be just about anyone.
  • Those moments where actors you’ve worked with before manage to take their work to a new level and surprise you with an even better performance than expected.
  • Getting to know and witness the incredible talents of new (and personally very lovely!) people.
  • When, as the director, I’ve read a line so many times and yet an actor comes in and reads it with a totally new delivery, and it brings out extra layers of meaning I hadn’t imagined.
  • Falling back in love with the play. By the time we hit rehearsals I’ve read it so often it’s lost a lot of its freshness, but as soon as it’s in the hands of the actors, I remember all the reasons I loved it in the first place.
  • That instant where I know that an actor understands their character perfectly and is bringing it to life in all the subtle and colourful ways that make it real.
  • Watching the cast bond. You always wonder, “Will this group work well together? Will they be able to support and challenge one another?” It’s always exciting to see that come into being.
  • Being constantly impressed by how quickly the actors weave little adjustments and ideas into their characters, and how it instantly clarifies things.
  • Group enthusiasm. Everyone’s been off learning lines and thinking about their characters; the energy of getting everyone in one room and starting to put it together is always special.
  • The surprise that comes when we hit the somewhat more bawdy parts of the play. Not all the actors had realised that medieval plays could be quite so “colourful”!

There is much left to do, but everyone is working really hard, and I think we’re all enjoying the process. I can’t wait to see what the next week will bring- and I hope you’ll join us at the performance, because all the signs thus far are pointing to a really great production!

Mischief… and Death

Of all the characters in Mankind, Mischief is the most elusive and enigmatic. Mankind and Mercy are human, Titivillus is demonic, and whether we read the N’s as demons or human who personify worldly evils, their role as vices is apparent. Mischief is not really a vice, a demon, or a person, but inhabits some world between: his presence bodes ill for Mankind, but ‘mischief’ as a concept is not tempting in the same way as the worldly indulgences promoted by the N’s.

For our Mischief we have relied heavily on a brief note in ‘Aspects of the Staging of Mankind’ by Neville Denny (in Medium Aevum, 1 January, 1974, p. 252-263). Denny equates Mischief with “ ‘calamity’, ‘disaster’, and hence with despair as well as malice”, and finally makes the suggestion that perhaps Mischief was staged as Death- a Grim Reaper, possibly as part of a lingering tradition from folk plays. While I can’t claim that this idea hasn’t been used in previous productions, I haven’t seen it with this staging, and thought it an interesting idea to consider.

A return to the script with this idea in mind gave me arguments both for and against this interpretation of Mischief. The greatest “against” is the cynical comedy and, well, liveliness of Mischief. One has a hard time picturing a cowled and scythe-carrying Death capering about and teasing the vices in this manner. Perhaps of greater weight is a discrepancy which is not limited to this play but a seeming contradiction that has often puzzled me. Mankind is, in its totality, an exhortation towards Christianity and its teachings of redemption: why, if one holds such faith, should Death be an antagonistic or fearful figure?

To both arguments I can offer rebuttals. Faith is seldom absolute; the fact that it is faith, rather than fact, means that death, for all the hope that faith is intended to offer, remains the great unknown, and inherently frightening. Moreover, in the late fifteenth century, death was a frequent and familiar visitor. This is post-plague Britain; and while the first and most horrifying outbreak was more than a century in the past by the time Mankind was written, an outbreak in 1471, nearly contemporaneous to the play, had taken out another 10% of the population. Death as calamity and disaster would have been all too easy an idea to grasp. And ‘Death’ should perhaps not be seen as a single entity: a Death which arrives when one has been behaving as Mankind does with the Vices is to be feared, whereas a Death which arrives when one is a more holy state of being might be a benevolent figure. Nor is a lively Death an anomaly to a fifteenth-century audience, for this is the era of the Dance of Death, itself an artistic allegory of the end of the life for all. While not exactly comical, it certainly refutes our modern idea of the Grim Reaper as a silent, staid, lurking figure.

What tipped me over into trying the idea of Mischief as a death figure was simply reading his lines with that in mind. To many of them it makes no difference, but to many it creates a much more interesting layer of interpretation. “I am worse than nought,” he laments, “I, Mischief, was here at the beginning of the game and argued with Mercy….” Death is, of course, the final “nought” of unbeing, and has been present not merely since the beginning of the play, but since the beginning of creation. Mischief’s threats to cut off the injured body parts of the Vices becomes far more sinister when one considers the survival rates for amputation in the era of medieval medicine, and his encounter with the law (“the chains I burst asunder, and killed the jailer, yes, and his fair wife embraced in a corner”) certainly takes on a different hue if he also personifies the end of life.

Mischief as death makes sense of his difference from the N’s, as Denny suggests, as well as adding a nice layer of darkness to the scatological levity of the Vices, and raising the stakes on Mankind’s behaviour. It also makes Mercy’s gesture of compassion something beyond a theological salvation. Perhaps, knowing what is really at stake through his encounter with a Mischief who offers him an unforgiven mortality, Mankind will think twice before spending more time in the company of the Vices.

Director’s Notes: The Fiction Behind Mankind

On these posts I try to give you some insights into the plays we’re working on- the backstory, the history that informs our work, and the occasional behind the scenes “here’s how we we’re doing it and why” perspective. This might give you the idea that the HIDden approach is a very academic, as well as theatrical one. There’s a fair bit of truth in that, but I don’t want you to think that everything is ultra-erudite or heavy going. Sometimes, the things that inspire us or make things click into place don’t have footnotes, and that’s what I wanted to share today.

Every time I am faced with medieval characters whose primary definition is “being a medieval peasant”, there is a book I grab off the shelf. It’s fiction- well informed, heavily researched fiction, but the point isn’t that it’s true or not, but that it speaks to something evocative that sometimes historical documents can’t reach. The book is called Down the Common, by Anne Baer, and almost twenty years after I first read it, I still absolutely love it for its non-romanticised, down-to-earth story of life in a medieval village. And it’s the first thing I will turn back to when working on the character of Mankind.

The people in the story are ordinary: some are more clever or introspective (Mankind might have understood them) and some are foolish; some are looking for adventures and some never want to leave their patch of earth. All of them are engaged in the everyday struggle to keep body and soul together: getting in the harvest, surviving the cold of winter, bringing up children who know how to behave in ways that won’t be destructive to the community. Their lives are in so many ways completely different from ours, but the getting on with every day is what most of us do today, too.

I think about those fictional peasants when I try to imagine Mankind’s life on an ordinary day, when maybe he hasn’t just heard a sermon in church and isn’t quite so anxious about the state of his soul. After all, despite his initial self-abasing monologue, we also see him carrying in with the plowing and planting of his fields, so we can assume that he does not spend all of his time bemoaning the state of his everlasting soul! It’s also easy, though, in reading this tale of the struggle of medieval peasantry, to see why someone like Mankind might yearn to achieve whatever behaviour will earn him a place in a heavenly afterlife. Their bodily existence is not one we modern folk would consider pleasant.

But neither are their lives unrelieved misery, which is something we may forget if we think of the Monty Python mud-peasants when we picture everyday medieval life. The Vices are the extreme end of the spectrum, but to use Mercy’s favourite word, within measure they represent the amusements- singing, dancing, joking, drinking, festivals, celebrations. The other thing I love in Down the Common is the delight people find in little things that today we would probably overlook. A sunny day means more. Freshly baked bread is a genuine treat. Someone like Mankind, clearly of a naturally spiritual turn, might find God in those moments- and perhaps he will value those things more, now that he knows what excess can bring.

I can’t tell you what will be in an actor’s head when playing the character (nor should I try!), but in directing it, the world created in that book is in the back of mine. It’s also just a really good read, and I recommend it to anyone, especially if you’ve ever wondered what’s going on way, way behind the scenes in “director brain” during the process of putting together Mankind.