It has the scenes one would expect from a Christmas play: Mary showing off her baby Jesus to shepherds and three kings arriving with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh. It also has a scene where a midwife gets her hand deformed when she tries to find out if Mary is really still a virgin. They form part of the nativity scenes from the N-town plays, which are this year’s offering from Toronto’s Poculi Ludique Societas, entitled A Medieval Christmas: Go We hence to Bethlehem’s Bower.
The plays are being performed this weekend at Toronto’s St Thomas Anglican Church (which is also co-producing the show), an annual event which drew over one hundred people to their opening night. For just over an hour the audience is treated to the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, told from a medieval perspective. Some of the scenes will be familiar to a modern audience, but others are truly unique and very funny. One early scene has Joseph trying to pick cherries off a cherry tree for Mary, only to have the branches move away from him as he tries to grab the fruit. Mary has more success after she prays to God.
The N-town plays were written down in the latter half of the fifteenth-century, and were performed in the towns of northern England. They depict various scenes from the Bible, ranging from Adam and Eve to the Last Judgment, and include several set during the birth of Jesus. These plays would have been very popular around Christmas time, with the actors performing them from the back of a wagon set up in the middle of a town.
Poculi Ludique Societas has been recreating and performing medieval and Renaissance plays for over forty years, and has seen famous actors such as Kate Nelligan and Don McKellar on their stage. This weekend’s show features a cast of eighteen actors, including Peter McArthur, who plays Joseph. This is Peter’s third show with Poculi Ludique Societas. “I do enjoy medieval theatre,” he explains. “It is interesting to take on a role where the language is a little different.”
Daniel Kim, who has a role as one of the shepherds, agrees that performing a medieval play can be challenging, but the script “sounds more beautiful and musical the more you rehearse it.”
This year’s show is directed by Kimberley Radmacher, who has been involved with Poculi Ludique Societas since the 1990s. She finds that these medieval plays “are a lot more vibrant” than what you might expect from something written over five hundred years ago, with a lot of humour in them.
The play is accompanied by musical performances, which help to move the action from scene to scene. Few records survive that detail what music was originally played at these plays, so Music Director Bryan Martin needed to turn to other pieces of 15th century music, including Latin and English carols. Martin explains that finding the right music, preparing it and getting the timing right to fit with the play’s action involves “a big time commitment…its like doing a broadway show.”
The audience was very appreciative of the cast and crew’s efforts, while the actors enjoyed getting to perform in front of the large crowd. Danielle Adkins, who was auditioned and won the role of the Angel after hearing about the play from the St Thomas Anglican Church , said she was slightly nervous and excited during the play, but in the end had a lot of fun. She will get the opportunity to make two more performances, as A Medieval Christmas: Go We hence to Bethlehem’s Bower plays twice on Saturday.
Poculi Ludique Societas also runs other shows throughout the year. For more details, please visit their website at http://groups.chass.utoronto.ca/plspls/
Read also an interview Julia Armstrong conducted with some of the people involved in the play: http://www.stthomas.on.ca/medieval-christmas