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Alison Cooper tells a tale about the hostess of a medieval banquet – with the help of six larger than life automata.

12th century stories for a 21st century audience

HOT journalist and ExploreTheArch company member Erica Smith writes about the latest production from this unique St Leonards-based theatre.

ExploreTheArch director, Gail Borrow, is a visionary – and persuasive – woman. Soon after I met her in January 2016, she rang me up out of the blue and asked if I could read a page from Gulliver’s Travels for a St Patrick’s Day event. It turned out that by saying ‘yes’, I had committed to memorising a page of Swift’s novel whilst operating a host of puppetry. The stage was a bedroom, with an audience of six and my accompanist was the 14-year old Alice Beadle, dressed as a cabin boy, sitting atop a bedroom cupboard playing Telemann on the violin.

Alice Beadle as Guigemar in ExploreTheArch’s production ‘Spirited’. Photograph © Ian O’Leary

Move forward five years and I’m performing with Alice Beadle again – in the latest ExploreTheArch production. We each have our own stage – as does dancer and physical theatre actor, Alison Cooper. This time, Gail Borrow is directing Spirited – three fragments of short stories by the medieval best-selling female writer, Marie de France.

Spirited has sprung from Marie de France’s vivid and surreal adventures written a hundred years after the Norman invasion of 1066. A kaleidoscope of unconventional heroes present themselves— a youth uninterested in love, a woman who says something she regrets and a steady partner who is a closet werewolf three days a week – all pushing boundaries to honour their unconventional selves, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

A writer of domestic drama and escapes beyond home, best-selling female author Marie de France was pushing boundaries herself and recent research suggests a forgotten female workforce alongside her, scribing the manuscripts we assume to have been created by a male hand.

All three ‘playlets’ begin with a celebration of the magic of ‘marginalia’ – the beautiful and fantastic creations found in the margins of medieval manuscripts. My performance incorporates writing with pen and ink as a tribute to those long ago scribes. Our audience capacity is still limited. Each playlet is performed three times per night – the audience of 18 people ‘promenade’ around the house in groups of six and watch from individual covered seats.

Erica Smith as ‘Lady Bisclavret’ – a Breton noble who discovers her husband is not all that he seems. Photograph © Ian O’Leary.

Performances began on Saturday 3 July and will run until 17 July. Because of Covid-19, the performance space at Archer Lodge has been re-invented so the audiences sit outside (safely under cover  and appropriately distanced from each other). Audiences view Alice Beadle’s watery performance (meant in the best possible way), and Alison Cooper’s medieval feast through the windows of the house. Meanwhile, I perform from a brick shed to an audience safely closeted under an awning in a courtyard. The finale of the show happens under the boughs of an ash tree in the back garden.

The contemporary soundtrack has been composed by Alice Beadle under the mentorship of composer and multi instrumentalist Frank Moon. The music is haunting and evocative of the medieval era, yet totally 21st century. Beadle still plays her violin in this performance, but she has come a long way since playing Telemann on top of a wardrobe.

Violinist and composer, Alice Beadle; visual artist Erica Smith and dancer Alison Cooper together in the finale of ‘Spirited’. Photograph © Ian O’Leary.

As always, the puppetry is thanks to engineer @Poorly Beetle – the animated creations are delightful and deceptively simple. It is the subtle humour and attention to detail which makes these productions so breath-taking.

Spirited was intended to be a theatre-piece for winter solstice, before we were plunged into Tier 4. It is wonderful that Archer Lodge has finally opened its gates and is permitted to share these intimate performances in an outside and Covid-19 safe, domestic setting. ExploreTheArch is one of the remarkable gems of Hastings and St Leonards. It is a privilege to be part of this theatre company, and I strongly recommend you visit the website to reserve your tickets as soon as possible. I might be partisan, but these tickets are worth every penny of £15.

6.30 p.m. shows: Thurs 8 – Mon 12 July
6.00 p.m. shows: Thurs 15 – Sat 17 July
Running time: 80 mins
Venue: Archer Lodge, Charles Road, St Leonards on Sea, TN38 OQX
Tickets: £15, free tickets for under 19s.
Advanced booking essential, limited availability.
Book your tickets via the ExploreTheArch website.

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Posted 18:24 Sunday, Jul 4, 2021 In: Arts News

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