Monks on the move;Arts
What do you do if a mud - spattered monk, weary and worn, faints in front of you? If you're a bunch of unprepared adults standing in for ace role-playing pupils, the answer is . . . not very much.
However, we eventually got over our inhibitions enough to help Brother Luke (as he turned out to be) to take off his battered sandals and remove the filthy rags wrapped around his feet. Then we had to get him talking about himself, but we weren't very good at that either.
Several thousand children will face the Fainting Monk this summer if they visit the Young National Trust Theatre's latest production, God and My Right, which is touring nine NT houses between now and September. The subtitle is "Change and Everyday Life in England under Henry VIII", and its theme is the dissolution of the monasteries.
I had gone to Sutton House, a Tudor-and-much-else building in Hackney, east London, to watch the dress rehearsal. Because the schools were closed for Easter, I was gently press-ganged, with a gaggle of other adults, into the role of a pupil participating in the performance.
Sutton House is the YNTT's base, from where administrator Sally Littlefair has sent out nine productions to more than 40 NT venues over the past 10 years. She began planning this latest production more than a year ago. This involved providing a resource-book and briefing days for teachers at all nine venues.
"In consultation with the NT's education department we decided last year that the dissolution of the monasteries was a relevant topic, and we produced a short paper on the areas we might cover," she explains.
"Then this went to our artistic director, Matthew Townshend, who set about producing a scenario last autumn."
Mr Townshend's scenario established six characters, the groups that the children will be divided into, and the broad outlines of the action. By the time rehearsals started, Matthew had "a script with holes in it". The holes were to be filled by pupils.
Matthew set the scene for us, as he will do for children at key stages 2 and 3 at hundreds of performances. He explains that there's a bit of a flap on in Tudor England in the summer of 1536. King Henry has taken to divorce, beheading, and threatening the monasteries. His Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, has done an audit of church property throughout the land, and there are rumours that the smaller monasteries are to be dissolved.
We are divided into three groups: monks, who face daunting dilemmas if the dissolution goes through; clothworkers, local families involved in agriculture and trade, who will both gain and lose; and household pages, who will play instruments and carry messages to the groups as the action unfolds.
The six professional actors in the company play the lord of the manor and his young wife, a monk called Luke, the Widow Huckaback, a local market trader, the prioress of a local nunnery, and Meister Jan, a master-weaver from Antwerp.
We monks try to sort out the grief King Henry's Great Idea is giving us. We intercept a letter from our abbot to Sir Hugh, the lord of the manor, and agonise over whether to open it; we discuss whether we want to work as secular scribes for Sir Hugh or should try to find a place in a larger monastery.
We decide to defy Sir Hugh, demanding a letter of safe passage and setting off in search of somewhere to practise our faith between England and Rome.
Afterwards, Matthew Townshend explains that this sense of group identity is a common reaction among pupils. But during the five years he has been working for the YNTT he has noted interesting differences between audiences. "Foreigners are more popular in some places than others, where insularity rules. There are often marked but unpredictable differences in attitudes to royalty; the most surprising people turn out to be true blues."
For the next six months he will be monitoring, adjusting and evaluating the performance of God and My Right. At the early performances at Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire there will be input from John Fines, a history professor at Chichester Institute of Higher Education and a history-through-drama specialist.
Matthew Townshend and Sally Littlefair stress that preparation and classroom follow-up are vital. The excellent teacher's resource book makes this easier. It provides basic factual information and plenty of ideas - from simple costumes to instrument-playing - to make the experience more enjoyable for pupils.
For some of the 7,000 children who will see God and My Right, it will be, according to Matthew, their first experience of live theatre. This monk-for-a-day sends them his blessing and urges them not to cave in to that rapacious King Henry.
Further details from YNTT, Sutton House, 2-4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London E8 6JQ. Tel: 0181 986 0242