Last month, for the first time, we were able to see and hear two of the convent plays central to our project in their original medieval Walloon French, when we held a staged read-through in Oxford. Aurélie and I had translated one of the project’s play scripts into present-day English earlier this year, for an improvised read-through at the Medieval English Theatre conference – we were very keen to see how a group of theatre specialists reacted to the play, and to see how it worked spatially, and this event gave us lots of ideas and pointers. However, because our participants were primarily first-language English speakers, and were specialists in Medieval English drama, we didn’t feel that it would be helpful to use the original medieval script. However, our recent read-through was mostly populated by members of the Oxford Anglo-Norman Reading Group – and so, with a group of Old and Middle French-language specialists at our mercy, it was a great opportunity for us to hear the medieval words themselves: to appreciate the varying diction, registers, tones and rhythms which our plays deployed in their original linguistic format, and to grasp more concretely something of their aural qualities and their formal features.
One of the most interesting things we noticed was the large area which was clearly needed for parts of these plays – particularly those sections involving the three kings, which seemed to us to be very processional and stately. This had been evident at the Medieval English Theatre conference too, but having to stage our second read-through in a middle-sized room rather than in a large theatre space, as we had at METh, really drove this home – there was nowhere near enough space. Also interesting was the change in spatial needs from one play to the next, and the corresponding change in tone, and in aesthetic and visual experience: might these plays have intended for performance in very different spaces within the convent? The plays seemed to work very frequently with sudden changes of speed or tone – movement to stillness, song to speech, anger to calmness or devotion, for example. This was something which came over much more strongly in performance than it had when reading the scripts.
We owe a big thankyou to all those who volunteered – Huw, Carol, Jane, Graham, Kats, Audrey, Serin, Kierri and Marco – we had an excellent evening, and learned a great deal from your brilliant performances: merci!