I first joined Rag Morris in the mid 1990s, shortly after I graduated from Bristol University. At that time Rag regularly performed both traditional and unconventional self-penned mummers plays for special occasions in Bristol or even on tours abroad. These were often written or instigated by Rag Morris scribe Marc Vyvyan-Jones. One of his productions was a spectacular play about the legendary giants Vincent and Goram, who were allegedly fundamental to many of Bristol’s geographical features. When Marc moved away from Bristol, I suspect nobody else felt confident enough to take on the challenge of the larger-scale mummers productions, although we still always performed a play for ourselves every year for our mid-winter party.
And so it came to pass that for a scriptwriting challenge in 2008, which would lead to the revival of a new company of Rag Morris Mummers, I started composing a new play about a local hero of engineering, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose story has become a central part of Bristol’s history, almost entering the realms of mythology, if it is possible to blur the boundaries a little. My choice of hero was in part inspired by a minor character from the Vincent and Goram play, named Brunelzebub; in the story it was Vincent himself who was responsible for carving out the Avon Gorge, where Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge can now be admired.
I was aware that for the celebrations in 2005 surrounding the 200th anniversary of Brunel’s birth, an exhibition was hosted by the ss Great Britain, entitled ‘The 9 Lives of I.K. Brunel’, and this gave me the idea for the natural structure for the play. I undertook some considerable research, deciding that it ought to be crammed with historical accuracies, unlike most traditional mummers’ plays; and that the best way to present the tale would be as a bunch of storytellers each revealing a different aspect of Isambard’s personality. The number of genuinely life-threatening situations that Brunel actually placed himself in gave the semi-mythical character of Doctor Foster the opportunity to find a series of unlikely cures for our hero – although I was delighted to discover subsequently that Brunel was actually treated at one point by a Doctor Morris.
The 150th anniversary of Brunel’s death in September 2009 gave us a suitably apposite occasion to take our play out to various appropriate locations around the streets of Bristol, most of which were mentioned in the play. There had been vast numbers of events across the South-West coordinated by a special committee to commemorate Brunel’s 200th Birthday in 2006; however apart from the première of our play – which we initiated ourselves – there was very little else that marked the (sadder) anniversary in 2009. It felt like the time was right for the play and that history was conspiring to make it so. The performances were well received and Rag Morris Mummers were delighted to revive the play again for the inaugural Bristol Folk Festival in the Colston Hall in 2011.
As a storyteller, I like working out new ways of telling old stories, and these mummers’ plays offer an interesting platform to experiment with. They’re also hopefully fun to take part in and entertaining to watch – and if they aren’t then they always ought to be.
The concept of a “fix-it-up chappie” who turns up in the middle of a dramatic conflict, who often talks in riddles and has a connection to a mysterious or superior kind of knowledge; who is able to perform miraculous cures and fixes which lead to a resolution of the conflict or drama; appears time and again in all sorts of storytelling genres, from ancient myths and legends to religious texts, from hospital dramas to detective fiction. One wonders whether the creators of ‘Doctor Who’ ever appreciated the archetypal lineage of their central character. The quack doctor mummers’ plays often strip this central concept back to its bare bones. Without this character the play wouldn’t conclude with the happy ending that the audience expects the storyteller to provide.
A mummers’ play is part of the living tradition of storytelling and street performance. The form of this kind of play, with a quack doctor arriving to cure a fallen hero, is a fundamental plot device that seems to connect us to past generations of storytellers, while being brought into the living present with every performance. In fact every mummers’ play performance is an act of bringing a tradition back to life, which is a kind of meta-cure that most audiences, and some performers aren’t even aware of, but which is part of the implicit mystery that often seems to generates a certain kind of historical resonance; even if it’s just because the same play is always performed in the same way, year after year. And it even happens when a brand new mummers’ play is performed for the first time, to an unsuspecting public.