This month I directed The Chester Noah Play with The Liverpool University Players for the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival at The Merseyside Maritime Museum.
Part of a larger ‘cycle’ of medieval plays telling the story of Christian history from Creation to Doomsday, The Chester Noah Play was originally performed in the fifteenth century by the Waterleaders and Drawers of Dee, a professional guild responsible for bringing water to the citizens of Chester from the River Dee. The connection between the subject matter of the play and the guild’s work with water is deliberate, and helps to underscore the symbolic connotations of water as a salvific element with the power to destroy and redeem. By producing and performing the play, the Waterleaders and Drawers demonstrated their own piety and desire to be saved and helped spectators acknowledge the importance of redemption in their lives. While the actors adopt the role of God’s chosen few, those watching unwittingly become representatives of sinful mankind; they stand outside the ark in the space occupied by the flood, symbolically drowning as they watch God cleanse the world of sin.
Other notable features of the play include information about medieval shipbuilding, a comedic but moving portrayal of Mrs Noah, who refuses to get on the ark if her ‘gossips’ (friends) can’t be saved too, and detailed directions revealing how the medieval actors staged the boarding of the animals and created the illusion of Noah sending forth a raven and dove (a prop bird attached to a cord on the ark’s mast).
Featuring as part of a family-friendly event, our production was never intended to be an academic exercise to gain insights into early stagecraft, but using the original script and stage directions, and performing outdoors to an audience who were free to move around in close proximity to the actors, nevertheless taught us a great deal about the power and appeal of the medieval drama.
One of the greatest challenges in lifting the play off the page was deciding how to deal with having so many characters ‘on stage’ throughout the performance, when most hardly say a word. The play is dominated by speeches from God, Noah, and, to a lesser extent, Mrs Noah, yet Noah’s three sons and their wives are physically present throughout interacting with them.
The hardest section to direct in this respect was the opening ‘scene’ in which God justifies the deluge and instructs Noah how to build the ark. God addresses Noah after only a few lines, so the actor playing him – Alex Pardey – needed to be visible from the start; it was distracting to have Noah walk on as the speech had just begun. The family also needed to be ‘on stage’ from the start because Noah addresses them with ‘Have done you men and women all…’ immediately after thanking God for promising to save them; it seemed incongruous for them to not be in Noah’s presence until that point.
Having everyone on stage from the beginning prompted questions about how much of God’s speech the family is meant to hear. Do they hear the entire thing, the part addressed to Noah, or none of it? If they do hear, how do they react to the world’s impending destruction? Do they wail and cry, or remain silent and fearful? If they don’t hear God, what are they doing on stage during his exchange with Noah? Are they silent statues, coming to life only when Noah addresses them? Are they miming activities from daily life, oblivious to the fate of the world? Though the play gives no indication, the latter seemed unlikely because Shem responds to Noah’s ‘Have done…’ by saying he is ready with the tools needed to build the ark; he does not require further explanation or encouragement. For me, this swung it. The family had to hear God’s speech.
What really surprised me was how dramatically the tone of the play changed when I experimented with different ways of directing the silent family in that crucial scene. Asking them to kneel down in prayer as God spoke, with only Noah rising to engage with Him created a very sombre tone. God and Noah became the focal point of the scene, the family were marginalised, and any human response to the flood that they might have conveyed by reacting to God’s news was lost. Though calmer, more reflective and probably more in keeping with the tone of medieval productions, I wanted the audience to connect with what was being said at a basic human level and consider how it would feel to be told that the world was going to end.
We still began with the family kneeling in prayer (demonstrating the piety that prompts God to save them in the first place), but I asked them to rise in shock and fear, gasping and consoling each other as they heard God declare ‘Man that I made will I destroy’. Aside from displaying raw emotion and prompting the audience to consider what they would do, having the actors console each other meant that Noah’s ‘Have done…’ became a way of telling his family to put their emotions aside and get on with fulfilling God’s command to build the ark.
In other ‘scenes’ directing the silent family was made easier by stage directions embedded in the dialogue and an instruction stating that the family should mime building the ark. When they help to bring the animals on board, the play states that images of the animals mentioned in their speeches should be painted on boards, so it made sense for the family to bring a series of boards on as they delivered their lines. We used a combination of boards and puppets to appeal to the children in our audience and add a little comedy as the actors mimed pushing and squeezing animals onto the prop boat that Spike Theatre had kindly lent us.
Staging the other silent star of the play – the flood itself – was another challenge. British weather being what it is, there was always a possibility that it would rain on our performance, but we didn’t want real water and the problems that it would bring: wet actors and costumes, fewer spectators, and a slippery boat! Despite the fact that medieval plays often involved interesting special effects (the fireworks coming out of the devil’s arse in The Castle of Perseverance or the withering of Salome’s hand in the N-Town Nativity spring to mind), the medieval guild may not have attempted to represent the flood. There is no way of knowing for sure. Yet I wanted to have something theatrical to bridge the two parts of the play: pre- and post- deluge.
I took inspiration from Mark Dornford-May’s 2001 production of The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso, which represented the flood with an actor pouring water into a bucket. Our God – Martin Poile – brought on a large watering-can labelled ‘Act of God’ and poured water into a large pot labelled ‘Earth’, while counting out the days of the flood. This allowed the family to act out a long sea voyage that made them sick and weary, contrasting nicely with their jubilation when the flood began to subside. The audience seemed to like the symbolism of the watering-can and I was delighted with the way the scene showed that God was in control.
And how did we stage God’s final act and gift to Noah’s family, the inaudible but visually stunning rainbow? Well this image will explain far better than words can…
You can watch the play here:
Cast Interviews here:
Images from our production are available here.
Information about the original medieval play is available in our Programme.