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Life The Universe & Everything Day 42

March 14, 2010

Regular blog-readers will know I currently honour the Jewish Shabbat. This is not mere affectation. Although my peculiar initiation into the Mysteries is clothed in the Christian traditions in which I was raised, yet I recognise the relativity of cultural forms and the deep unity that underlies them. In The Book of The Crow, The Goose cries out:

Come Christian and Jew,
Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu,
Let each to His own True Divinity.
Let even the blind
Material Mind
Walk His own hallowed path in Liberty.

There is also a very practical reason. By Saturday, I’m sometimes fit to drop: a good day to listen to my body, then stop, rest, revive, restore. On Sunday I need at least to prepare myself for the things that might be coming at me on Monday morning – not the mention those things for which you can’t prepare.

One of the Unprepareables (see Day 43) – was resolved this Sunday lunchtime with a quick phone call. The cast member had been discussing the founding of the Priory of St Mary Overie and was worried that our Ballad was inaccurate. I confirmed their version of the actual history, explaining that our Ballad relates the legend. Assured them that Katie and I are always happy to listen and will do our best to answer any further queries or concerns.

I did have a bit of a Sunday in the garden >> Crow-style << sweeping and clearing up around the shrine to the Virgin in the Crossbones Garden of Remembrance. I enjoyed the physical work, a welcome relief from all the mental activity. Katie spent the afternoon planting primroses, pansies and violets in two troughs which we plan to put on the wall behind the shrine.

That was late afternoon. before that, I did a 2-3 hour intensive on the programme notes, which Beccy has offered to design for us. Here’s the first draft of my introduction:

The World of the Play

The Southwark Mysteries is a modern drama inspired by the medieval mystery plays and rooted in the history of Bankside – London’s “outlaw borough”.

It began as a enigmatic, visionary poem, written – or, as I tend to say, “received” – on the night of 23rd November 1996.  My muse was The Goose, the spirit of a medieval prostitute licensed by the church to ply her oldest profession within Southwark’s Liberty of the Clink yet, allegedly, buried in the unconsecrated Crossbones Graveyard, her bones unearthed when the Jubilee Line extension recently dug up the site.

The Liberty of the Clink dates back to 1107, when the Bishop of Winchester was granted a stretch of the Bankside, outside the law of the City of London. Here, the Bishop controlled the brothels, or ‘stews’. The ladies of The Liberty became  known as ‘Winchester Geese’. By Shakespeare’s day, Bankside was established as London’s pleasure quarter, a waterfront strip of theatres, bear-pits, taverns and stews.

By the end of the last millennium The Southwark Mysteries had evolved into first an epic cycle of poems, then  a contemporary cycle of Mystery Plays. In my efforts to set the work in the context of the English Christian Mystery tradition, I received invaluable guidance from the Provost, now Dean, of Southwark Cathedral and from Mark Rylance, the actor and then artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe.

The play has been performed in full only once before, to a capacity audience in Shakespeare’s Globe and Southwark Cathedral on Easter Sunday, 23rd April 2000. Simon Hughes MP hailed it as “the jewel in the crown” of Southwark’s millennium celebrations, suggesting that it should be restaged every ten years, like the famous Oberammergau passion play.

In the decade since, the SOUTHWARK MYSTERIES community arts organisation has presented hundreds of smaller scale performances, workshops and guided historical walks, helping to transform the way people think about the place they live, work or study. Exactly ten years later, this new production features top professional actors, an adult community cast and children from three local schools.

In The Southwark Mysteries, Satan unleashes the Day of Judgement on the wicked people of Southwark, past and present. The evil one has special designs on The Goose and John Crow, her street-wise, self-styled “prophet”. All seems lost – until an unlikely Jesus shows up to reveal his radical new teaching of forgiveness.

This apocalyptic play seeks to be true Christ’s teachings, though it may present them in ways that some Christians may find challenging. It is important to be clear that it is only a play – not a theological tract – and would certainly not claim to be ‘Gospel Truth’.

A play reveals its own ‘poetic truth’ in the conflict between contradictory points of view. Like the medieval mysteries, my play uses pantomime elements – music, comedy, drama and spectacle – to explore profound moral and spiritual issues. It embodies a vision of forgiveness and healing, which has earned it the steadfast support of Southwark Cathedral.

Just as those medieval Mysteries adapted Bible stories to their own time and place,  my modern play sees Jesus’ return to Southwark to express his compassion for, and identification with, all humanity – not least the poor, the excluded, the outcast. In this respect, I hope the play embodies something of the spirit of Southwark – for centuries one of the most brutalised, despised and deprived parts of London, yet the place that inspired writers Chaucer and Dickens , where  Shakespearean theatre  was born – a flower growing on a rubbish tip.

(c) John Constable
Southwark, 2010

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One comment

  1. I love this John. Stumble it I shall!



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