1986 Tales From a Maskshop

Albion Moonlight

We were looking forward to touring a new show, and had organised a tour starting in Lancashire, moving to the Yorkshire Dales and then an extended tour of Galloway. The Dumfries and Galloway leg was once again supported by Jenny Wilson, since she had now taken up the job of Director of Dumfries & Galloway Arts, having moved there from her post in Fife.

I had been reading Kenneth Patchen’s ‘The Journal of Albion Moonlight’, a disturbing work that I felt was a book of genius; a twisted and allegorical quest into madness inspired by the pre-Shakespearian lyric ‘Tom O’Bedlam’. I wanted to see if we could turn it into a theatre production. It became Tales From a Maskshop.

A disappearing holy well

The show started with a short film, following the structure we had used three years earlier in Needles in a Candleflame. This time our narrative started within the filmed section, which was set in the workshop of a mask-maker. It drew on one of Patchen’s many apocalyptic images – a craftsman dies, but his eye doesn’t. Instead it moved up into the heavens, where it gradually expanded until it completely filled the sky. Our tent then opened out, and the journey of the other characters continued as a theatre show, full of similar ambivalent and dark imagery. Again, the film was shot in black and white, 16mm, and directed by Steph Bunn. As part of the filming we created a Holy Well in a secluded spot by the River Ogden. We left it in situ over night, just in case when the rushes were returned the next morning, it would need a re-shoot. When we watched the rushes, it turned out that the film was a little too dark, and so we returned to film the scene for a second day running. But everything had been removed; not a trace of the Holy Well remained – it had vanished. Given that it took a team of us a few hours to create it – rags tied from trees, a decorated small spring – I wonder who took it on themselves to remove our set. They must have felt it was the real thing, and probably been disturbed by its existence. We never did get to reshoot that too-dark sequence.

We tried two innovations. The first (for us) was using a live narrator, with Melissa Wyer, her face veiled, narrating sections of Patchen’s narrative. Because the source was a literary one I wasn’t happy to entirely lose Patchen’s words. This worked well, providing a thread of sorts that otherwise might have been difficult to follow. Melissa though felt uncertain of herself in doing this and my lack of experience in directing voice probably didn’t help her much.

How to end?

The second was asking the cast to walk off the stage at the end of the show and disappear straight out of the tent, as if their journey continued. This, of course, left the audience abandoned in their seats with nothing to applaud. It felt right to me, in keeping with the nihilism of the story, but from the start it divided opinion within the company. After the first few public shows it was clear that it strongly divided our audiences too. Probably the majority were against it. The absence of a feeling of completion – because the audience were not able to applaud at the end of a performance – really worried a lot of people. It also meant that the performers felt as if they were left hanging in mid-air…

We debated and discussed this over and over, with good points being made from both sides of the argument. Eventually I accepted the arguments to end the show with a curtain call, and we rehearsed a more conventional ending which then stayed throughout its tour. Thinking about the decision again, I’m still not certain if it was the right one.


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