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It's time to build an ark


A rich medieval tradition that died out nearly 500 years ago is being revived at Newcastle’s Castle Keep this week.

Mystery plays were once a yearly sight on the city’s streets, creating a carnival atmosphere where everyone came out to see the craftsmen guilds’ pageant displays.

And with biblical-scale floods still in the news, Henrike Laehnemann, Professor of German Studies, is expecting Newcastle University’s rendition of the Newcastle Play - Building of the Ark - will still resonate with a modern day audience.

“As far as we know, there has been no public performance of this play – the only one of the Newcastle Cycle to survive – since the 16th century,” says Prof Laehnemann. “It would have originally taken place in the old part of the city, which the Castle Keep is in the heart of, so it’s a perfect location for this re-enactment.

“It’s wonderful to be able to perform the shipwrights play – the one dedicated to showcasing their trade - in a city with such a strong shipbuilding history.

“We have taken a few liberties with the original format – such as casting the Devil and God as bankers in suits and Noah in his pyjamas – but throughout history this has been a playful genre where the players improvise, with plenty of musical interludes.”

As well as directing the play, Prof Laehnemann will be providing some of the musical accompaniment on a serpent – a kind of medieval horn - with her Early Music group, Newcastle Waits.

The re-enactment project brings together first year German and English Literature students who, in the grand tradition of the style, will be delivering plenty of puns within the short text.

Dr Harriet Archer, a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Newcastle University, has written a new prologue, which she will be reading in a ‘town crier’ style.

In Building of the Ark, the Devil is looking for a way to survive the flood, and plans to seduce Noah’s wife so he can get the secret of how to make another ark.

Originally the players, none of whom were professional actors, would have followed a route down from Blackfriars, past the old market places of Newgate, Bigg Market and Cloth Market down to Amen Corner at St Nicholas Cathedral and onto the Quayside where the play would take place during Corpus Christi celebrations in June.

The shipwrights guild's showcase would have traditionally been followed by the mariners guild play, The Flood, completing the Noah’s Ark story.

This free event takes place at the Castle Keep, Newcastle upon Tyne, on Friday 28 March 2014 from 5pm and is sponsored by the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Group, Newcastle University. There will be complementary ‘small beer’ – a barely alcoholic beverage traditionally used at the time to disinfect the water - served on the rooftop for the audience if the weather permits.

published on: 25 March 2014