FAbles from the Great north wood
Fables from the Great North Wood is a new play by Robert Cole. It is a sequence of 12 short stories for two or more voices featuring Jack ‘n’ Diane, six ravens and a sh*tload of fairy dust. The play takes the form of a medieval mystery play set in London, in the modern era, with much less God. Art by Nomis. Music by Tony Parker and Colin Barlow.”
FOREWORD BY THE AUTHOR
Fables from the Great North Wood is a sequence of 12 short stories for two or more voices. It’s structured like one of the medieval English Mystery plays from York and elsewhere but is set in London, modern era, much less God.
The play is written to work in several ways – most importantly, as stories with interesting characters and intriguing plot development. I hope the play works poetically: that is, I hope the words are nice to hear read aloud or to oneself. The play is knit together, meanwhile, by themes that concern belief. Very roughly, three sides of belief are addressed sequentially. First, belief in creation myths; second belief the financial systems that support civilisations; and third, self-belief.
It uses the development of the English vernacular as a cipher or foil for social progress. The two narrators are Jack, as in the Green Man of English folklore, and Diane, as in Diana the Classical goddess and patron of the countryside, hunters, crossroads, and the Moon. In myth, Diana is also portrayed as a virgin goddess and protector of childbirth.
Fables mashes pagan and Christian traditions while referencing classical myths and being anchored in the present day. For instance, the violence comes largely in the context of knife-crime. As with the original Mystery Plays, the Fables are written with community participation in mind. I mention other faiths to suggest they are part of the same narrative.
However, the Bible stuff is what I know so I focus on that. I have re-examined each of the Bible stories I have chosen to include. Some I have re-imagined. Some I have redrawn, noting the sometimes-stark difference between the stories we think we know and biblical texts. Jacob, for instance, is described in terms that made it impossible for me to see him as the least bit likeable. Modern Nativity tales miss out the Massacre of the Holy Innocents (sic). There is no proper evidence to suggest Judas was the one wot dunnit. A kiss on the cheek? A dropped purse? That is wafer-thin circumstantial evidence that would surely be laughed out of most courts.
Belief in finance is an odd one because many people do not even know they believe in finance and many would avowedly deny the faith. It’s funny how people use finance, often thinking it is in something other than a fiction dreamt up in the thoroughly laudable pursuit of Progress.
Without finance – and its offshoot money – the modern world would not exist. It is the most important human invention. Its appearance marks the end of pre-history. Finance enabled the surviving human genus to trade the life of a hunter-gather for interdependent, settled and specialised lives. Civilisation has no great claim to be civil and financial tensions are often at least partly responsible. But, as Diane says in Namahana (Play Four, Act Four):
“Finance is the great facilitator.
It’s genius. Homos’ most sapient thing.
All sorts of money – finance, currency,
stocks and shares and cash – are more than the best
thing since sliced bread. Without money, sliced bread
would not exist. Nor much else that’s made.
Without it, we’d still be eating berries,
wearing rabbit skins and living in caves.”
The self-belief aspects are tackled through the prism of depressions and narcissism while noting how easily it is for anyone to believe anything if they want to believe it. Witness the suggestion in this part that Mary, the mother of Christian, and John Baptiste may have had a fling (see Charing Cross, Play Nine, Act Three). No evidence is presented. What do you believe in that instance? Is it what you want to believe?
As I wrote the play, I became increasingly aware of the similarities between Christianity and folklore-ish paganism. I’d never appreciated the precise six-month separation of May Day and All Hallows and May Day. They are two sides of the same thing, eh? Yet it is not just that the old pagan festivals were hijacked, it is that Jesus dies and comes back to life in a manner comparable to the death of life in winter and its rebirth in spring. And all that stuff about rising again on the third day. Freudian or what?
It also strikes me that religions seem to obsess about after-lives and the existence of God when the appropriate response to such enquiry is: “Let’s face it, we don’t know. Can we move on now please?” This is not to belittle Christianity, or any other belief; nor to suggest it is all hogwash. Quite the reverse, in many ways. But look at the New Testament and there ain’t much about heaven. There is deliberation about establishing a Kingdom of God on earth, though, which I take to mean we should be doing our very best to create a fair, healthy, non-violent world of equal opportunity – in the here and now. The Lord’s Prayer urges Christians to follow Godly ways “on earth” as they are in heaven. William Blake extolled the same theme when he wrote of building Jerusalem among England’s dark satanic mills. Jesus the teacher, meanwhile, barely puts a foot wrong.
For the record, I have faith and it is of a Roman persuasion because, well, it is. I hope the play avoids accusations of blasphemy. I would be troubled if it caused undue offence. I also assume that my God is big enough and strong enough to swat away my blitherings with greater ease and less thought than s/he/it (oops) would give a drop of wind-blown piss. Also for the record the play is not autobiographical.
So, why bother to read Fables? Because it’s different, powerful and relevant. Because it can be produced cheaply with two young actors and a director, or, equally, scaled up relative to more generous budgets. Fables will work on stage, online, on location or – ideally – a multi-media mix of all three. It could be an app. It could work in standalone sections. For instance, Play Nine, the central section – Nativity Uncut – could be a Christmas project for grown-ups as well as kids. There are direct opportunities to seek support funding from City Livery Company foundations – the mystery successors of guilds behind the 15th and 16th century plays.
Here is how it starts . . .
I – Before the Beginning
Pond Mount. Blackheath. Nothing is begun.
There is nothing here, not even London.
It’s cold: a life-defying Kelvincold.
A bare expanse with nothing for a soul.
It’s vacant, gaping, meaningless space
known as Chaos to Greek mythologists,
a chasm without bottom, top or sides,
a vacuum waiting for the start of time.
This is before the beginning, before
the hills, before the dinosaurs,
before the pharaohs and before the flood,
before beliefs, exchange, bodies and blood.
Slowly, off-beat ethereal noises
subvert the blankets of freezing silence.
From the hollowness, Northern Lights arise
colouring the obsidian darkness.
Six raven figures, dressed in anthracite
habits, slide out of the backlit midnight.
Hissing winds and knocking sounds are heard
which, as befits beginning, become words . . .
NOTE: FABLES from the GREAT NORTH WOOD, the book, is a short-run first edition play of 150 pages. There are 150 individually numbered copies which may be inscribed by the writer with a personal dedication. The book was published in January 2021 by Septimus Publishing, an offshoot of Bettercopy Ltd.
Robert Cole is a professional writer with 30 years’ experience as a journalist working primarily in financial, business and investment markets. He has written for The Times, Reuters, the London Evening Standard and The Independent. He has broadcast experience with the BBC, among others. In addition to several books on business, WetZebra Media published a collection of Robert’s verse as London Poems in 2016.