RT @CamdenPT: "Safety is a priority. Comfort? No. Which is not to say Trigger Warning is just uncomfortable, it’s a lot of things." Check…
view counter

Q&A: Tom Chivers Brings Medieval Poetry to Life in Shoreditch

Penned in the Margins is a multi-award winning live literature producer and independent publisher and their latest project, Fair Field, is a revival of a major Medieval work of literature. The work takes the form of several site-specific performances, an exhibition and educational workshops. Poet, editor and Penned in the Margins director, Tom Chivers joins us to talk about the work.

Eli Goldstone: What, exactly, is Piers Plowman?

Tom Chivers: Piers Plowman  is a 7,000 line poem by William Langland that tells the story of a wanderer called Will who is searching for Truth in a world in crisis. It was written in three versions between about 1360 and 1390. At the time, England was emerging from the aftermath of the Black Death and facing with political instability, religious division, foreign wars and popular discontent culminating in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

Langland was a contemporary of Chaucer and shares some of his preoccupations (such as class and money), but Piers Plowman is much, much weirder than The Canterbury Tales. The whole poem is set within a series of dream-visions and the language and characters get pretty psychedelic. Will witnesses an extravagant wedding that goes wrong, meets Richard II dressed as a cat, goes on a pub crawl with Gluttony, ploughs a field and then goes on strike - he even harrows Hell with Jesus Christ (spoiler alert: Jesus wins).

Eli: How does Fair Field reimagine the work?

Tom: I've always wanted to do something big with Piers Plowman. So for Fair Field, I've taken the five best moments from the poem and created a cycle of live performances that tell the story of Will's search for Truth. It's set it in this uncanny space between the medieval and the modern, and explores ideas that connect the 14th century with the 21st - from unfair labour practices and disability to financial excess and climate apocalypse. Each moment works on its own and is made by a different writer/artist, but together they take the audience on a journey into a medieval world that is both very strange and oddly familiar.

We're taking the production to the two locations that are integral to the poem - the Malvern Hills in Herefordshire/Worcestershire, where the poem opens; and the heart of London, where much of the action takes place. I've also curated an exhibition in the National Poetry Library at Southbank Centre, where you can go and see a rare, original manuscript of Piers Plowman and discover new artworks inspired by it (ends 9th July).

Eli: What can visitors expect when they enter Shoreditch Town Hall on the 7th and 8th of July?

Tom: Spectacular costumes, ancient folk songs, medieval line-dancing, placard-waving protesters, the Seven Deadly Sins (all of them), cow-calls, a mushroom cake, and a sprinkling of Middle English.

Eli: Who else is involved in Fair Field?

Tom: I have assembled a quite extraordinary team of artists, writer, musicians and actors for the project, including early music renegades The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments, poets Ross Sutherland and Steve Ely, playwright Annette Brook, writer/performers Francesca Millican-Slater and Nick Field, and hot new theatre company Breach. Our brilliant cast has spent the last few weeks stepping into the unknown with my co-director Russell Bender at the helm. It's utterly joyful watching people getting to grips with Langland's surreal, hypnotic world, and then totally owning it.

Eli: What are some other works of Medieval literature that you think deserve to be rediscovered by a modern audience?

Tom: My favourite work of medieval literature, besides Piers Plowman, is called Pearl. Also set in a dream, Pearl is an anonymous, alliterative poem about a man who has lost his 'precios perle' in a garden, which then morphs into a beautiful landscape full of shimmering lights and a river laden with gemstones. The dreamer sees a figure on the opposite bank, and slowly begins to realise that his lost pearl is in fact his daughter, who has died. It's an incredibly moving poem of grief that deserves to be discovered by a wider audience. I re-read it recently and would love to do something with it in the future.

Eli: Can you tell us more about Penned in the Margins?

Tom: I set up Penned in the Margins 13 years ago as a poetry night underneath the railway arches in Herne Hill, south London, where I grew up. Since then, it's become a recognised literary arts company producing new work live, in print and online. We've published about 75 books and in the last year alone our titles have been shortlisted for the Costa, Dylan Thomas, Ledbury Forte and Ted Hughes Prizes, and won the Somerset Maugham Prize and the British Book Design & Production Award. We produce a wide range of events - bespoke literary salons, touring theatre shows, performance lectures and site-specific audio tours. Our live literature productions have been presented at places like Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and the Sage Gateshead, and toured as far as India and Brazil. I work out of a tiny office in Aldgate crammed with boxes of books and strange props that I can't bring myself to chuck out.

Eli: Tell us a little bit about your own work and how it bridges the gap between performance and the page.

Tom: I believe the division between page and stage is artificial, and in any case is beginning to disappear. All the exciting stuff is in the blurry spaces, not only between writing and performance but also different genres and artforms. I'm interested in how language can challenge how we think, test new ideas and explore alternative stories.


Fair Field

7th & 8th July

Shoreditch Town Hall

view counter