Our performance of the Barking Abbey plays is approaching quickly and as a first time director, staging it has confronted me with some expected challenges but also with some surprising questions that have changed my perception and given me new knowledge of the plays. We started rehearsing mid-February; the idea was to have at first only one rehearsal a week and to record the songs to give the actors the time and the tools to prepare at home. It however became rapidly clear that songs needed to be rehearsed together, particularly when the singers did not all have the same level. People used to singing modern songs but who could not read music felt a little lost. Learning medieval chant by heart is not that easy if you are not used to hearing and singing it. The tune does not appear clearly and if you cannot read music, you struggle to sing the songs. The problem I encountered was that some people could immediately sing them quite well (with the sheet music) and we could then work on movements and emotions, and that others took a long time to do so because they needed to learn them by heart. These rehearsals taught me that however easy it is to forget the importance of usic when reading the play, it is impossible to ignore it in performance. Rehearsing music needs time and when watching what Smoldon insisted on calling ‘music-dramas’, it takes a central place. The performance is an almost constant song and brings to life in unexpected ways the words on the page, creating moving or beautiful moments but also prolonging some of the texts I thought rather short and turning them into challenges for our actors. Singing changes the experience of the play for the actors as well. I play the small role of a novice and when I sing with other actors I feel bound to them in a community where we communicate with one another, more so than when we only move together during the procession. The time the song takes, the necessity to listen to and to be aware of each other, make it a communal experience even when we are standing in different parts of the church.
Directing this play has also resulted in a near-obsessive interest for liturgical vestments, movements and rituals, which had not been my prime concern when working on the play earlier. When Tamara Haddad, who is in charge of costume and I sat down to look more closely at what I thought were rather lengthy ‘stage directions’, we noticed the amount of information missing from the Barking Ordinal. The description of the officiating priest wearing ‘a cope’ which had seemed until then pretty straightforward now raised many questions: what colour was that cope, was it worn over an alb or a surplice, would the priest have worn stoles as he normally did under a cope, would the cincture have gone over or under the stole, how does one tie a cincture, would the stole have been crossed as it was during mass, what colour was the stole, how wide, how long, should the cope have a hood, do we really need to put our actors in cassocks no one will see, would priests have worn a maniple in such celebrations? We also discussed and argued over processional orders, how to cense a sepulchre containing a consecrated host, how to hold a monstrance, how to hit your breast when confessing, etc. Thankfully, a Dominican friar helped us answer those questions which were obvious to the writers of the Ordinal but certainly not to 21st-century literary scholars. Research into costumes and movement taught us about our knowledge (or lack of) and the knowledge and assumptions of the manuscript composer. It also made us realise the complexity and the precise symbolism of liturgical vestments and movements.