An exercise in costumed interpreting
I walk quickly and quietly across the Cathedral floor, my hair in a bun under a hairnet, my long cane tapping gently to avoid the cracks.
In Salisbury Cathedral in 2015, volunteers were involved in a costumed interpreters’ project, acting various characters from various ages with a greater or lesser connection with the document. A member of the peasants’ revolt, Thomas Paley, a person from the civil war – and King John and his second wife, Queen Isabella.
In the changing room, I wrestle into the costume. A long red dress, a sash, a surcoat, a complicated veil and crown set, and a cloak – it is still spring, and the cloisters, where we perform, are open to the outside air. With severe dyspraxia, trying to put an unfamiliar set of clothes on in order is a massive challenge. Eventually, it’s done, and with an extreme effort of concentration, I check it back and front in the mirror, adjust the grand jewelled crown and veil slightly (I bet she pinned the strips of cloth in her headdress together in real life!) and leave the changing room.
Familiar with the building and in a fairly open space, I am able to move around freely without the cane – a rare treat which I seldom indulge in when unnecessary, as most of the time it’s worth using it in order to conserve energy. I emerge in character, my head held high, and pace determinedly towards the cloisters.
It’s never possible to know what one will find there. Some days, there are very few people. Other days there are too many. Watching out for infant children on the verge of going into hysterics due to your odd appearance is a constant need, as is being cautious not to look cross around anyone who doesn’t speak English, lest they think they are doing something they shouldn’t and can’t ask. Once a mother asked me to be super-nice to her infant-school-age* son, in the hope of getting him over his terror of people in costumes. Some days I performed the full script repeatedly, and spent a fair amount of time standing “out”: facing away from visitors in the inside arches of the cloister for rests inbetween performances. On other days, I would spend much of the time talking with the person dressed as a suffragette or peasant’s revolt partaker, as there wasn’t really anyone to perform to.
We were given a script and told we could improvise on it. I found the script rather unsuitable for the purpose – written, perhaps, with a rather different type of situation in mind. Prowling the cloisters in costume, one encounters all sorts of groups of people – twenty-five adults on a guided tour, families on a day out, straggling adults with cameras, slightly older children who’ve been given permission to do their own thing so long as they stay in the building, and a single set script isn’t really suitable for all comers. In the end, I developed a performance script for larger groups and concentrations of people, a different one for families and small groups, and specific comments for situations such as people desiring to take photos. My attempts to develop a script for children were never successful with this character.
My performance script kept the original character of the given script, in pretending I was at Runnymede, charged by my husband to try to dissuade barons and other people in influence from pressing the Magna Carta. There’s quite a lot of dramatic licence in that, as I don’t believe there is any reason to suppose she was there, and given they seem to have been trying not to have a civil war, it seems a bit unlikely that the Queen would have risked herself in the middle of it. I concentrated on the clause that looks like an early forerunner to a parliament – that which sets up a group of twenty-five named people with various powers. I forget what. In the middle of an election, this gave me the opportunity to make fourth wall jokes – supplied by my mother – about how “if you go on like this, you’ll end up ruled by a shopkeeper’s daughter, and every villain will be putting forward their own candidate for high office”.
With smaller groups, particularly with women or a married couple, I generally went off into a rant about my personal grievances “my husband won’t let me have anything to do with bringing up my children” and often commenting on the hope that I was expecting again. Isabella had another child with the sort of timing that makes it possible or probable that she was pregnant at the time of Magna Carta, and King John doesn’t seem to have trusted her much with the children – rightly or wrongly. It was a strange world to modern eyes, into which this only gives the vaguest glimpse. Enough is known about Isabella to supply the imagination, but not enough is known to give one real, solid material. This has the advantage that it is easier not to contradict known facts by mistake! Though I found it necessary to be careful to remember what has and hasn’t happened in 1215. How many King Henrys have there been? How long ago is the Norman conquest?
I found the most difficult dramatic challenge with Isabella in this situation to be the dichotomy between the fact that I was in reality there to serve – to offer enrichment to the visitor experience – and the necessary haughty, capricious, I-own-everything-and-you-are-beneath-my-notice attitude of the character I was playing. Isabella was described as “vain, capricious and troublesome”, which provided a lovely script for those asking to take photos “Oh yes, go ahead. I have a reputation for being vain, capricious and troublesome, but being vain will do for now!” That was one of my greatest triumphs – it almost always got a laugh – though, ironically, it isn’t something that I can imagine her actually saying. Presenting a historical character in an impossible place involves saying a lot of things that have more to do with conveying the wider historical situation than with being truly in character.
The most significant technical challenge for most of us was finding a good exit line. This wasn’t so relevant for my “complaint about my grievances” script, which ended in much the same way as an ordinary conversation. With the performance script, I eventually settled on “There’s the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. He’s behind all this. I must just go and have a word. Grace be with you. Farewell.” Starting lines are easier, for some reason, but as Queen Isabella and most characters, you have to tell people who you are in some character appropriate way. (I don’t think the suffragette had that problem! Chaining yourself to something while holding a big sign saying “Votes for women” is probably enough of a clue!) I settled for telling them not to pretend they didn’t know who I “Queen Isabella, wife of King John” was.
I got quite fond of her. She probably wasn’t a particularly nice person, but in some ways, she felt infinitely tragic in that very fact.
We did about two hours in a shift, and as a medieval character, I couldn’t wear a watch. This was actually pre-clock in the west, though I made the mistake once or twice of asking people whether a certain hour had struck before someone told me that was wrong! So, generally rather exhausted, I eventually went back to the changing room, wrestled myself back out of the costume, took up my cane again, had my free hot drink (usually cocoa) and went home on the bus, leaving the odd and fascinating glimpses of the medieval world that Isabella offers – the world prior to most current English history – behind.
*Infant-school-age: in England this means somewhere between four and seven years.