‘Mankind’: Defining Our Revival

We have had long discussions about what constitutes a revival and what we hope to achieve in April by returning to ‘Mankind’.  Our Artistic Director sets out some of our conclusions below.

Revival:

  1. The action of reviving something after decline or discontinuance; restoration to general use
  2. The action or an act of staging a new production of an old play, musical, etc.,
  3. Restoration or return to life or consciousness
  4. Restoration to activity or vigour; improvement in condition, strength, etc.

                                             – Oxford English Dictionary

Revival is one of those very tricky words, where everyone thinks they know what it means, but often you end up with different interpretations.

To give one example: during the 1951 productions of the York, Chester, and Coventry mystery play cycles, each one was referred to as a “revival”, because it was bringing back plays that hadn’t been seen for more than four hundred years. Yet none of them was performed in the original Middle English, and all of them were radically reworked. In York entire plays were cut to create one omnibus play; in Chester a few lines were kept from each play so that they could claim they’d performed the “entire” cycle; in Coventry, the two surviving plays were elided together into one. Are these revivals? Re-imaginings? Re-creations? And where does that leave the subsequent half-century of regular performances, most of which have involved a new (reworked) script, new music, new casts, and entirely different staging? Are these the revivals? According to the definitions given by the OED, they are also revivals, in any definition. And yet those other words also feel tempting, and perhaps more accurate.

All historic drama is revival, inherently, but they are always revivals of plays rather than productions. With medieval drama in particular, we simply don’t know enough about their original staging to revive those productions. And, given that the cycle plays, at least, were being performed regularly for multiple centuries, one would be hard-pressed to define any version as “definitive”. They were revivals even in their own – long – period.

When it came to our production of Mankind, we set out to define what we meant by revival very deliberately. Although our production is a revival in the second definition given above when compared to the medieval original, we are not creating a new production from scratch. We are, rather, dusting off the one from last autumn. There will be some changes, but we are keeping it as close to November’s performance as possible. These changes are more in line with what might be expected if a production is on tour: details change as venues do, but the essential aspects of the piece remain the same. Ours is a “return to life” rather than a new production altogether.

As a process, then, we have been careful to only change those things which are required of necessity, rather than desire. Just because we could do something differently, doesn’t mean we should in this case. Sure, it might be fun to let Titivillus enter with a fanfare and pyros going off, but that wasn’t part of the original plan, so it won’t be there now, either. The change in venue means we have to reconsider some of the entrances and exits; they will be kept as close to the original intention as possible, although their dramatic impact is more important than actual physical proximity to the November performance. How the relationship with the audience will change, when some of them are in raised seating, remains to be seen; the hope is that the answer is “not terribly much”. We have consciously tried to keep the intimacy of the audience/actor relationship, as we feel that this juxtaposition works particularly well for medieval drama, given that it was written for performance with a physically proximate audience and a lack of the “fourth wall” boundaries that we’re so accustomed to today.

No doubt there will be other challenges as we progress toward the performances in April. What shouldn’t change are the impressive talents and enthusiasm of the cast, or the distinct sense of fun that this most delightful of medieval plays offers.

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