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: medievalenglishtheatre.co.uk

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