When Old becomes New

After seeing a touring production of Mankind (a show with which we have quite a recent history) our Artistic Director explains her views on seeing someone else’s take on material with which one has previously worked.

When you work with historic dramas, there’s a fairly good chance that at some point you will have the chance to see another production of a play that you’ve worked on. In such cases, I find it impossible not to make comparisons, to have little voices in your head of the actors you’ve worked with saying the lines, to anticipate the cues that you’re used to.

This weekend I had the chance to see the production of play we have become quite familiar with – Mankind. By now I know that play inside and out, and have three different HIDden variants bouncing around inside my head. Sure enough, that echo was there in my ears, and there were definitely moments where I laughed unexpectedly because it brought back amusing memories. But it was a radically different spin on the play, a completely different style: you’d certainly recognise it as the same play, but it’s like apples and oranges – both fruit, yet very different guises.

This is why I think that the chance to see a play you know and have worked on, when done by someone else, is a chance you should never pass up. The beauty of historic theatre, that makes it so interesting, whether it’s your work or your hobby or just something you go to see occasionally, is that there are so many ways of doing the same piece. As I’ve said before, you can get it completely wrong, but there are also a lot of totally different ways of getting it right.

It might be easy to worry that, in seeing another production, you’ll have to face up to it being better than your own. Sometimes that happens. Other times you walk away wondering what on earth another director or actor was thinking. In most cases I’ve found, however, it’s actually not about comparative value judgements at all. Instead, it’s reassuring, a reminder that you don’t have to spend aeons hunting for “The One Best Way”, because it doesn’t exist. Somebody else’s creative choices might inspire something in you for the future; or you might really love a production and think it’s brilliant but also acknowledge that you simply have a completely different style, and there’s room in the world for both. Theatre isn’t a competition. It’s profoundly analytical – no matter what your engagement with it – but it’s not arithmetic, with one fixed answer and a limited way of getting to it; it’s a world of nearly infinite possibility. (People may talk about “definitive productions” but I personally think that’s the wrong end of the stick. Nothing is ever so brilliant and perfect that it could not be equalled under different conditions.)

It’s also possible that, after having spent a lot of time working on a play, you will have lost your ability to see it objectively, or joyfully. It becomes something where you feel that you’ve wrung out of it all that you could. Seeing someone else’s version of it helps restore perspective, helps you see all theatre with clearer eyes if your own are tired. It’s also just healthy to be an audience member, seeing things from their perspective. When you spend all your time on productions of your own, it’s quite refreshing to really laugh about moments that you had no hand in devising.

So here is my suggestion to you. Go out and see a production of a show you know – one you’ve done, or one you’ve seen before. Don’t watch it to pick a favourite – watch it to think about how each company came up with their different versions, and what each one highlights. Enjoy the fact that, whether you work in theatre full-time or see yourself as just an occasional audience member, you’re part of something so amazingly dynamic.

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Pondering Historical Accuracy

Inspired by a BBC News article, our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on historical accuracy in drama.

History, theatre and their relationship – we’ve mentioned it here before, and probably will again, because it’s exactly what we do. So we take note when the question about the balance between them is debated in public, as it was recently in an article on BBC News.

The interesting thing is that it always seems to be an either/or discussion. “Artistic licence was favoured over historical accuracy.” “In one camp are the purists who would say if you must do historical fiction then it must be based on the fact… Then there is the second camp.. which is history is always good and what’s really important is to make people excited about history.” The phrase ‘favoured over’ implicitly suggests that one must trump the other, while the division of schools of thought into ‘camps’ posits that there isn’t a possible compromise, not to mention the implication that people won’t get excited about history if it is fact-based. The question “is it even possible to make a historical drama that is 100% accurate” – with answers given of yes and no – continues to suggest that, really, it’s not possible to responsibly chart a middle course. However, the question that isn’t being asked here is: what do we mean by accuracy? Once you start considering this, some of the either/or begins to break down.

If accuracy means that the costumes, set, and props are period appropriate: yes, that’s achievable, and if one of your production goals is to place a story in a time period, there’s not much excuse for getting that wrong carelessly, even it means that your audience will have to get used to something that looks a little bit different from their imagined ideal of that period. If accuracy means language: it may or may not be achievable. If you wanted to, say, create a play about the Roman Empire, are you going to do it in Latin? (And if you are – do you really know what the local accent sounded like?) If the goal is 100% authenticity, that’s a big hurdle to leap over, one that is automatically going to limit your audience to an extremely small number of people. If accuracy means trying to create the feeling of a period, for example in a play set in the past but made up of fictional characters: we’re moving further away from something achievable, because while you can aim to do so by putting in as many details as possible, most of us would be hard pressed to define the “feeling” of our own time, much less one we didn’t live in. If accuracy means trying to convey an idea from the past, rather than the past itself (for example, the way we approached Mankind), you simply can’t measure accuracy in yards of fabric or verb choice, and the definition of success in achieving it isn’t going to calculated in the same way.

What’s really being questioned in this argument about accuracy is what we do with plays when real historical figures are the central characters, when their lives, which we know from documentary history, are put onto the stage. And most of the argument is about whether the absolute facts are followed, in exact chronological order, in the precise locations where they were known to occur. This is where a degree of ‘dramatic licence’ becomes a point of contention.

But even here there are bigger questions that the debate tends to glide over. Let’s imagine that you’re building a production from primary source documents (such as what we’re trying to do with The Vital Spark). Are you obligated to use all of them? Do you have to depict every single known incident in a character’s known history to achieve accuracy? If the answer is no, then you’re making editorial decisions right away, and while everything might be coming from verifiable historical sources, there’s an argument to be made that you’ve already been “inauthentic”. I don’t think even the so-called purists are actually arguing that a drama need be all inclusive.

The BBC article does hit one particular point that is easy to forget: knowing the facts doesn’t mean we know the thoughts or feelings behind them. It’s an almost inevitable historical hole, and one that drama by its nature requires to be filled. So ascribing motivations and thought processes to characters, while going beyond documented fact, is unavoidable. It may open the door to charges of “inaccuracy”, but it would in most cases be equally hard to make a watertight case for an “accurate” version (as opposed to simply a different interpretation). Arguably, you can get it entirely wrong by making things up without supporting evidence or blatantly contradicting what the record indicates, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently wrong to try to fill in the question with educated guesses. Since intention behind action is something historians argue over all the time, I don’t think this is the flashpoint of accuracy arguments in most cases, either.

No, it’s the playing fast-and-loose with chronology and geography that seems to get people truly worked up. “That never happened”, “it didn’t happen like that” – these are the cries of the heart from historians who sit through period drama that has taken artistic licence. And I get it, because I’ve been there and done that. (I’m sure the friend who dragged me to see Titanic remembers being presented with a multi-page list of all its inaccuracies the next day.) Historians don’t want audiences to learn things wrong, to become wedded to an idea of the past that is provably erroneous. However, I also get why following history to the letter isn’t always what a writer or director does. Maybe the point they’re trying to make isn’t about history as a thing unto itself. Setting aside, for the moment, commercialism as a goal unto itself, it’s wrong to suggest that there could never be a valid reason for make some (minor) changes to a story in pursuit of a wider narrative.

So: how important is artistic licence? From the vantage point of sitting right down the binary fence of historian and director, my answer would be twofold.

First, that it varies moment to moment in any given piece, and you have to take each case separately. It’s important in that the lack of one inexhaustible definition of “accurate” means there are many different “accuracies”, and as a theatre creator you need to have the freedom to make those choices. You have to be allowed to fill in gaps, actors have to be able to imagine fully-formed characters where the documents may only give you flat facts. A more purist approach than that would be to suggest that there should be no historical theatre (or historical fiction, or even, perhaps, history with interpretation, rather than just facsimiles of historic documents). As creative people, writers and directors need to be allowed to have room to ask bigger questions – of the world, of life, of human nature – through putting things together and taking them apart, and sometimes that is the goal, not historical fidelity, even if the past is part of the question itself. If you’re honest about it to your audience (and that, to me, is a critical component of being responsible to history), there is nothing wrong with asking, What if?

For my second answer, I’m going to echo Dr Tracy Borman’s statement that “where changes are made to the facts then they should be… for a good and justifiable reason.” Otherwise why on earth are you working on a story about history in the first place? Borman adds that “change for change’s sake is irritating,” but I’d go further and say that it’s also irresponsible, both as a historian and as a director. From a director’s standpoint, “just because” is lazy, and also because it’s blatantly saying that you don’t really care about the historical aspects of your production at all. I’d like to think that HIDden’s approach to historic drama isn’t that unusual, and that other directors who work on it try not to put one aspect of their work above the other but work with them in constantly renegotiated tension. If I didn’t believe that history could stand on its own two feet as inherently dramatic, I couldn’t do my job.

If we take on historical drama as our work, we know that audiences will trust that our productions will contain at least some degree of authenticity, and so we are also taking on some degree of educational responsibility. To advertise a production as “a true story” if we have taken liberties is a disservice to everyone involved, including the people of the past whose lives we’re putting onstage. How we make those distinctions available to audience members can vary, but we should at least try to let them know what they’re getting. We should be allowed our measure of artistic licence, but all licences come with responsibility. Historic drama at its best demands that we respect both.

N.B. It is worth noting that, although the production primarily under discussion in the BBC article is one of live drama, many of the examples given in the actual debate are television series, and the goals, needs, and audiences can be radically different between the two. Neither the article nor this essay attempt to delve into them, but it’s worth considering that the answers to these questions may vary considerably with the change in medium.

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.

Director’s Notes: On Recasting

Following our recent need to recruit some new cast members for our revival of ‘Mankind’, our Artistic Director shares some of her opinions on the idea and process of recasting.

I’ve always marvelled at the phenomenon of long-running shows, or those which tour multiple companies of the same production simultaneously. A sort of “quality control” aims to make sure that audiences in Beijing, Los Angeles, or Leeds are seeing pretty much the same thing; you can see the production in 1990 and again in 2010 and it looks more or less identical. It’s not so much the degree of planning and oversight it must take to pull this off. It’s the actors. Dozens of individuals, with their own talents and creative processes, somehow manage to inhabit the same character, and in very nearly the same way. I’ve often wondered what it must mean to them, creatively, to not only have to do their basic job of acting, but to do it knowing that there is, effectively, only one “right” result.

Since we have been faced with the task of recasting a few parts for our revival of Mankind, due to some actors from our November production being unable to return, I’ve been thinking about this a great deal. As we’re trying to keep it quite similar to that earlier performance, we don’t want a significant shakeup in the characterizations. But I also believe firmly that actors have to be allowed to find their own way to a character, to merge what is on the page with what they imagine. Performances aren’t things which roll off a conveyor belt, identical; you can’t just put Actor A into Actor B’s place and expect that everything will stay the same, not if you actually value their work and their contribution to the process.

This is especially true, I think, with medieval drama, where the “character clues” in the text are fewer. With characters drawn to type and non-specificity, their individuality and believability comes largely from what the actors bring to the table. The characters that are built, and their relationships with one another, are open to an awful lot of interpretation. Because we aren’t starting from scratch, in casting we needed to contemplate not only whether an actor would fit well with a part, but how well they might “click” with their opposite – Mercy with Mankind, or the two N’s. After all, while actor chemistry isn’t necessary, it certainly helps!

This was very much held in mind as we were recasting the vacant roles. As always in casting, there’s an element of gambling involved, of trying, instinctively, to imagine how people will work together and how the personality you meet at an audition or interview will translate into a working process and resultant performance. Parameters or pre-existing ideas, born of an earlier run of the production, definitely make this process more challenging.

We were fortunate to have a fantastic cast in November, and I think we’re equally fortunate in our April group. Our new people are talented and enthusiastic, and as always I’m looking forward to get into rehearsals and see where they go with their parts. Helping them find their own path into previously established roles will be an interesting challenge: I want to give them room to discover and create, without the results taking the production in a different direction than the one we’ve already set. Unlike a first performance, the sky isn’t really the limit; at this point, there actually are “wrong” answers. But if creating a performance is a journey, there are many different roads you can take to arrive at similar destinations.

If you had the chance to see our November performance of Mankind, I do hope you’ll come along for the April revival and see what might have come from our experiences on those different “paths”!

‘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.

Mankind’s Latin: A Conundrum

This week our Artistic Director contemplates Mankind’s ability to read and write in Latin.

In the modern (and western) world, we take it more or less as read- pun intended- that people are literate. While I’m sure it’s exciting for parents, to watch their child take first, tentative steps into reading, it’s a normalised step in our learning process. Whether it comes easily or not, there is a presumption that we will acquire literacy at some point in our young lives. Of course, there is still illiteracy in the world, especially if we take a widely global perspective, but for you, reading this, it’s probably something that’s been taken pretty much for granted.

This is a relatively recent development. In the Middle Ages, an ability to read and write was nowhere near as commonplace as it is today. Most people didn’t need to read, and didn’t really have the time to learn. Class status mattered: the more wealth you had, the more powerful you were, the greater the odds you would have at least some degree of literacy. While there is a substantial argument that “literacy” can be auditory as well as actually accessing words off a page, it is the traditional meaning of literacy that matters for this discussion, and agreement seems to remain that most medieval peasants were not, in the usual sense of the term, “literate”.

And yet, Mankind, our eponymous peasant, who is clearly shown to be poor, overworked, and largely powerless in his society, is capable of writing. And not just writing, but writing in Latin, and understanding what he writes. We see him print onto a badge which he wears. These aren’t words we’ve heard him given by Mercy; it’s something he clearly understands on his own. What’s up with that?

There is no indication that Mankind has ever been of a higher station than he is at present- he’s not a down-on-his luck nobleman who might have learned as a child and just happens to find himself in poor circumstances. There was more social mobility by the late fifteenth century than previously: post-plague economic circumstances were to the advantage of the working class, as this labour force had diminished and was therefore more valuable, and a distinct merchant and middle class was rapidly developing. But even so, Mankind’s poverty is one of the central issues of the play, and why the Vices can tempt him away so easily- he is desperate for a life that is not all drudgery for little reward. Even in the late 1400’s, a peasant farmer would not have the resources of either time or money to be learning to read. (The printing press, invented around 1440, predates the play by a few decades, but was still a way from the mass-market-cheap-paperback phase, by a few centuries.)

A casual discussion with a colleague recently ended up with the question of whether he could be a monastic lay-brother. These were members of a monastic community who were not educated, or ordained, as clergy, but who performed the manual labour functions of the community, such as farming, cooking, etc. Although I have never found any academic suggestion of this possibility, I find it a rather intriguing idea. Titivillus suggests that Mankind should take a woman, “and your own wife betray”, which certainly argues against it. But this is the only real hint that Mankind has a spouse, and earlier Nought has offered to find Mankind a wife, which would suggest he might not be married. Of course, marital status is only one potential clue, but it would certainly make the Vices’ temptations more scandalous if the “spouse” they were encouraging Mankind to betray was the church to which he had committed himself. Mankind’s spiritual ignorance and weakness are perhaps the strongest arguments against his having any formal association with a religious order, but the idea, none the less, would be interesting to explore more fully.

The truth is that there is no immediately obvious, logical explanation for why Mankind is able to write, in Latin. And this is one of the challenges of medieval plays, which we have to keep in mind. Today’s theatre is so much the product of years of “reality” being the goal, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that fifteenth-century playwrights weren’t really interested in writing “characters”, not the sort we think of today, who are fully realised and realistic. Their goals were the ideas of the piece as a whole, the moral lesson, not the individuals inhabiting the drama. As a rather amusing article argues, you certainly can use modern acting methods, including “The Method” itself, to approach medieval drama. (1) But you have to accept that everything won’t weave together with perfect smoothness, and there may be aspects that don’t entirely make sense to logic, either historically or internally to the character. Mankind should not, logically, be able to read and write, and yet he can, and does. These are the moments where medieval drama becomes challenging, and we have to accept that it is a slightly different species than twentieth-century drama. While I’m sure some actors would have a hard time working with the “you just have to accept” attitude that medieval drama occasionally requires of them, the vast majority of people seem to be able to get to the emotional core of the character, regardless of these inconsistencies. And that is exactly what the drama demands, and what it was intended to give its audience.

Our Mankind, of course, is set in the twenty-first century, when it’s entirely probably that Mankind can read and write (though Latin is still beyond the pale for most of us). That discrepancy had nothing to do with our decision to move the play’s setting forward, but it is rather nice that it can help with the difficulty.

 

(1) Tydeman, Bill, ‘Stanislavski in the Garden of Gethsemane’, Medieval English Theatre 5.1, 1983, p. 53-57.