Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Green Men, Murder and Religious Mayhem - the Rochester Promenade Play

Yikes, what a week! I’m just back – today – from celebrating my mother’s 70th birthday by taking her to see La Traviata at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff and, finally, I have a few minutes to talk about the promenade play.

Actually, I feel like the last person who should be telling you about it – I didn’t even see it properly as I was the prompter for both performances. My eyes were glued to the script so I just listened and snatched odd visual snippets of what was going on. I will be able to watch it – eventually - as a cameraman from Kent Online has provided us with some uncut footage and the Ultimate Frisbee Freak was there with his digital video camera and the cathedral’s tripod recording it for family posterity.

We’d dreaded bad weather – particularly as one scene was played almost entirely in the cloister garden and we had no contingency plan other than to issue the audience with as many umbrellas as could be mustered – but, in the event, the sun shone all day, leaving the cast – most of whom were in medieval-style woollens – overheating in the unseasonal weather.

And the Indian summer encouraged the crowds to come. We had excellent audiences for both performances – in fact the audience for the first was almost too large, causing some delays between scenes and nasty moments of ‘do I come in now or not?’ for the poor cast. But all the actors coped with that – and all the other minor hitches of ‘with the audience’ performance - admirably. With ad libs to the fore and some nice moments of cast-audience interaction the whole thing was carried off with great aplomb.

Here are some pictures of the actors in action:

Actually, this one isn't an actor in action but, behind the mask (click on the picture to enlarge it) which was fixed to the outside of the organ loft, stood Bob, an actor with a mighty Green Man's voice which filled the cathedral with his rage during his anguished conversation with Justus, first bishop of Rochester:


Then there were the monks:
Ulf, the novice, who nearly slithered down the stairs in his haste to make his meeting with the Novice Master and

...Gundulf (not to be confused with Gandalf, despite the magician-like robes) aka The Weeping Monk of Bec who built the early bits of Rochester cathedral, its castle and the White Tower of London for William the Conqueror whom he didn't much approve of.

Then the audience was treated to a garden-based murder most foul. One of the cathedral's two saints - William of Perth, a thirteenth-century baker on pilgrimage - was done to death by his treacherous foster-son...


the story told by a storyteller and observed by a Madwoman...


...I'll leave you to work out which is which...

Then we watched as a conservator had a fright when the bishop whose memorial she was working on suddenly showed up with a lot of difficult questions...



...which were partly answered by the following scene in which two men who, in all probability never met - John Fisher and Nicholas Ridley - confront each other with chaplains at the ready...


The last scene, involving Dickens and a wholly fictitious biographer whom I had great fun inventing, allowed us to end on a poignant note - that of Dickens's last days.



Many thanks to my son, The Bassist, and to Richard Simmons both of whom took wonderful pictures of both performances in difficult circumstances.

And, in case you’re wondering where we came by all our fantastic costumes, the majority were designed and made by Berthe Fortin, a professional costume designer with whom we were very lucky to work. Berthe researched and produced all the medieval costumes which gave the early scenes – and particularly the story of William of Perth and Rochester’s madwoman - a great sense of unity and cohesion. The Dean and Chapter kindly made real vestments available for some of our Bishops and their chaplains which meant that the contrast between bishops Fisher and Ridley was wonderfully highlighted by the difference in clerical clothing the two men wore.

Of course, most of the experience of writing a play and having it produced is unlike novel-writing. The interactivity, the different medium, the audience… But one thing is exactly the same – the minute it’s finished and you can’t do anything to change it, you want to rewrite, cut, polish and change.
Fortunately for the actors, I restrained myself...

Many, many thanks must go to the Dean and Chapter of Rochester cathedral for giving me such free rein to interpret the history of their lovely cathedral in my own way – their faith in me is very much appreciated.

7 comments:

Frances Garrood said...

Alis, that looks quite amazing. You must be thrilled to have done it. Fantastic photos, too!

Tim Stretton said...

Really sorry not to have seen this, Alis. It looks and sounds fantastic!

Alis said...

Thanks, guys - it was an amazing thing to be involved with and I feel very lucky to have been asked to do it.

Aliya Whiteley said...

That all looks so cool! Glad it went so well.

Alis said...

Thanks, Aliya!

Neil said...

Hey, Alis. Belated congratulations on this. It looks wonderful. Well done you (and Co).

Darren B said...

Hi There
Darren here, I'm part of the Congregation at Rochester Cathedral and a friend of Annie Harvey and also head of cameras at GMTV.
I think the footage you have on dvd is mine,It is broadcast quality and Andrew Coulsdon is happy to cut it together for you if necessary.
Regards
Darren