Experience a Medieval and Renaissance Spectacle on the Streets of Durham (1st to 12th July)


Frontispiece showing the stage design for a medieval mystery play, by Hubert Cailleau. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece showing the stage design for a medieval mystery play, by Hubert Cailleau. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Draw back the curtain on a thousand years of drama in Durham this July, as the Theatrum Mundi theatre festival brings medieval and Renaissance performances to the streets of the city. From the oldest play from Britain, written on Lindisfarne, to a specially commissioned show celebrating the North East’s dramatic heritage, Theatrum Mundi will showcase the sorts of drama, music and dance that people in the region would have experienced hundreds of years ago.

As sun sets over Palace Green on 10 July, the show The Sacred and the Profane will include a procession of Durham’s traditional ‘boy bishop’. Children in skeleton costumes will join a torch-lit ‘Dance of Death’, inspired by a medieval painting in Hexham Abbey. The show will also feature a specially produced 20 foot stage dragon based on local legends such as the Lambton Worm.

One of the festival’s directors, Professor Barbara Ravelhofer, says:

The Sacred and the Profane will be a unique opportunity for people to experience their heritage first hand, in what promises to be a colourful show of Renaissance dance, costume and drama. We are working with museums and international specialists in textiles, theatre design and choreography to create, the sort of rich garments worn in the times of Elizabeth I.

We are grateful to volunteers from the region who will be performing in the show, including many local musicians, and to our behind-the-scenes volunteers for making costumes and props.

Elaborate and colourful Renaissance costumes

Authentic Renaissance costumes, which will be used during the Sacred and the Profane

Theatrum Mundi will also include the first performance in modern times of The Harrowing of Hell, the main section of which has a claim to be the oldest surviving British play.

Probably written on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne about the year 740, it depicts Christ’s descent into Hell after his crucifixion to redeem the souls of the departed. It survives in a Latin fragment and adapted into the form of a sermon in Old English. Researchers from the Records of Early English Drama North East project, have pieced these together to form a modern English version with music dating from the same period.

The Harrowing of Hell will be staged alongside Peregrini, a play about Christ’s appearances to the pilgrims on the road to Emmaus and to the apostles which was composed by Lawrence, Prior of Durham, about 1150.

This will be sung in the original Latin (with English surtitles), using specially researched music from manuscripts which were in Durham when the play was composed.

The plays’ director, Emeritus Professor John McKinnell, said:

We are fortunate to be able to bring these historic plays back to their home region. They feature many memorable scenes, from the hauntingly beautiful song of Eve to the drama of Christ using his cross as a weapon to battle with the devil and Thomas’s realisation that intellectual doubt is positively useful.

The three tempters who try to lead Mankind astray, from the production of Mankind by PLS of Toronto, coming to Durham in July 2016. Photograph by Kimberley Radmacher.

The three tempters who try to lead Mankind astray, from the production of Mankind by PLS of Toronto, coming to Durham in July 2016. Photograph by Kimberley Radmacher.

Other plays planned for the festival include a raucous performance of Mankind in Durham Market Place on Friday 8 July at 12.30pm and the Crucifixion from the York mystery cycle which will be staged on a “pageant wagon” on Palace Green on Sunday 10 July at 6pm. Both events are free.

The Sacred and the Profane will be performed on Palace Green on Sunday 10 July at 8.30pm; entry is free. Both The Harrowing of Hell and Peregrini will be performed on July 1 and 8 at 7.30pm in St Oswald’s Church; entry is £5. Tickets are available from Durham World Heritage Site Visitors’ Centre, Owengate, Durham, and can also be bought at the door. For more information see the Theatrum Mundi festival website.

The Theatrum Mundi festival is organised by the Records of Early English Drama North East project. Theatrum Mundi forms part of a joint SITM/REED conference from 7th to 12th July, which will feature several more plays along with 60 academic papers; registration for the conference is open now. 

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