Of Costumes, Crowns and Kings...

Brown Bag 25th May 2011
Attic Review
“The Devil’s Brood: Interpreting Henry II, His Family and Court at Dover Castle”
Mark Wallis, MA FAHI, Director of Past Pleasures

Costumed interpretation tends to cause something of a divide in the heritage community. Very often, it’s something of a Marmite situation – you either love it or hate it, and it can either be hugely successful, or a complete disaster as far as the public are concerned. Of course, this dichotomy is not absolute, for the right interpretation, in the right place at the right time has the potential to convert and enthral even the most hardened cynic. It is this kind of enchantment, enthrallment and empathy which Mark Wallis and his team at Past Pleasures aim to achieve.

In its twenty five years of operation, the company has been, I think it’s fair to say, instrumental in developing the role of costumed interpreters at heritage sites, not just in the UK, but around the world. They have worked with the Historic Royal Palaces, including Hampton Court, at Colonial Williamsburg in the US, Eger Castle in Hungary, and in historical periods which run the gamut ‘From Plato to NATO.’ Mark himself travels around the world advising museums and groups upon the most appropriate use of costumed interpretation in their individual contexts - and ‘appropriate’ is an apposite term. For this company is not about self-aggrandisement, but about site specificity, and public engagement with history. Their activities and role are aptly summed up by Messers. Gilbert and Sullivan – for they “trick you into learning with a laugh”.

One of their more recent projects was with English Heritage who in 2009 unveiled the Great Tower Project at Dover Castle. Redesigned and displayed to reflect its period of high grandeur during the 1180s, when King Henry II used it as an entertainment space for honoured guests and political dignitaries, this multi-million pound recreation included no interpretive panels, and no audio guide. Instead, it needed a population to bring the space to life, and help visitors to engage with the place – in the present and the past. It was this population that Past Pleasures was invited to provide.

Building populations requires the building of characters, from all walks of life. From the king and his sons, to the jester and the breweress, Past Pleasures assembled a cast of characters able to tell multiple stories about the castle, the times, and the people who lived and visited there. It’s not an easy task: a costumed interpreter is more than a person in fancy dress, and there are many facets to creating successful and powerful experiences and interactions.

Costume, of course, is a major issue. Getting it right is a difficult game, different problems arising depending on the times, places and people being evoked. Very little costume survives from the medieval period, and that which does is extraordinary. Past Pleasures, and historic clothiers like them, are reliant, therefore, on documentary sources, such as manuscript inventories and images, tomb sculptures, and works of literature such as the Roman de la Rose. However, such sources are notoriously idealised, and augmentation through experimentation and testing – the costumier’s form of experimental archaeology – is crucial. The examples which Mark brought in to show to us are evidence of the extensive level of detail to which the company pays attention, right down to the 18th century shape of the pockets on the recreation of Captain Cook’s coat. The examples are stunning examples of his company’s art – a 12th century knife, used by Prince John at the Dover Castle project, is a particularly stunning piece, with a stamp-tooled leatherwork scabbard and striped ivory and bone handle. It is clear evidence of the love and care which the company puts into its objects – these are pieces of museum quality. Indeed, English Heritage commissioned a crown to be made for the Dover Castle project, which in the end turned out to be so expensive and so well done that it could not be worn, and had to be accompanied on all its travels by a curator – rather an anachronistic inconvenience, should Henry II have actually decided, for once, to wear it.

Interpretation is, of course, more than costume. Less obvious to the casual observer, but no less important to those in the know, are the small minor details evoked in the ‘mute’ interpretation, down to the placement of stools and people, and the positions of the characters on the stage. Having the correct, most honoured character sitting on the right hand side of the king, for instance – something easily missed, but which just goes to show how much detail and care a recreator should undertake. When interpreting a place such as Dover Castle, the interpreter has to become one with their site. Initially, the rooms, like the crown, were deemed so well designed that they could not be used, and were barriered and inaccessible. But as Mark noted, if the characters couldn’t inhabit their world, there was little point in having them there at all. How were they supposed to bring a place to life if they couldn’t live in it? Eventually, Past Pleasures managed to convince English Heritage to let them actually inhabit the space, and though strictures still remain, the audience can now sit at a table with the king, and watch him partake of an admittedly synechdochic version of a kingly feast. Live interpretation brings many practical tensions and problems, between museum or heritage site and storyteller, which have to be acknowledged, and compromises must be made on both counts.

In donning the mantle of Henry and his accomplices, the interpreter inhabits not just clothes, but a world and a character, a real human being which they have to know inside out, and treat with understanding and respect. It is fundamentally critical, and not often enough stated, that the interpreters themselves need to be right: and not just in terms of how they look. Of course, when portraying a particular individual, it is important that the interpreter does match up to any ‘aesthetic’ or visual requirements – in many ways, this is fundamental to the public perception of historic characters and history generally. On a visit to Jamestown, Mark noted that the appearance of the ‘Native Americans’ completely undermined any real accuracy in the project. Not only were they wearing too many clothes, but every single one of them was a ‘WASP’ – a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. It is fascinating to me how certain groups, and certain historic periods can be accorded so little respect – we are well beyond the days of the Black and White Minstrel show, and most would baulk in horror at the idea of white men blacking up to portray slaves. Likewise would most people, rightly, be scandalized by a dumbed down, gory live display of prisoners at Auschwitz: and yet Plague victims of the 14th century can be portrayed in a comic, disturbingly grotesque manner. Temporal remoteness, mixed perhaps with a lack of publicity and understanding, it seems, are factors powerful enough to make the present remote enough from history that it is deemed acceptable to trivialize it so. But this is not what Past Pleasures seeks to do: whilst admitting their 21st century location, and their potential errors and inaccuracies (which are, as in any historical investigation, inevitable), they seek to achieve an empathetic, respectful homage to their characters.

Recruiting the right people for the task, then, is crucial – they have to be more than actors, but highly skilled improvisers, deeply knowledgeable about their character and the period in which they lived, and sympathetic not only to their character, but to the audience. They need to be, at times, police and psychotherapists, and as far as possible need to be able to engage with the visitor to such an extent that they can encourage them to suspend their disbelief, just for a moment, and to play the game. This is particularly important with characters famous for their personality quirks – Henry the II, for instance, was known for flying into rages and in fact claimed to be descended from the devil, but I suspect that it would not be appropriate, and highly disturbing for the visitor, for the interpreter to suddenly begin to chew the carpets. The interpreter has to know how to get the character across without reverting to third person explanation, or puzzlement and confusion. Past Pleasures do not provide a staged, scripted performance but instead interactive, site specific theatre which places the public at the very centre of a human drama. Getting this right is a skill, and a special kind of person is needed to pull it off with taste and respect, for all parties concerned. Hence the extensive nature of Mark’s recruitment process, which comprises a character creation and a thousand word essay, as well as unscripted interaction with the interviewers and the other interviewees.

There are huge issues with costumed interpretation of course. Good interpretation is hugely expensive. The Historic Royal Palaces can afford to use them every day, but many other places can’t. But it can encourage return visits, and can, if successful, can generate more income for the institution. For each institution, it’s a difficult balance to draw, and a difficult investment to make.

Such activities have also in the past been seen as ‘dumbing down’ the past, and in some cases this is true. However, costumed interpretation, as RCMG found at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, can make concrete an abstract concept, can create a visual, sensory hook upon which to hang and develop ideas of the past. The research of RCMG, the Historic Royal Palaces, and Tony Jackson amongst others is beginning to show concrete evidence for its true and strong power, particularly for school groups, but also for other audiences. A strong visceral experience such as this provides can be a springboard into understanding and investigating those once remote and removed places, times and peoples. Successful interpretation can challenge stereotyped perceptions of the past, developing deep, faceted characters, and subtly changing people’s inaccurate ideas, without, of course, embarrassing them. They need to be able to use language which is appropriate to the times – so they do, in fact, on occasion use language which 21st century ears might deem offensive or unacceptable – but which is also understandable to the viewer. One of the strange temporal realities surrounding interpretation is, of course, language and translation – there would be very little point in the interpreter playing Henry II to speak the language of 12th century aristocracy, for the vast majority of the audience would have little idea of what they were saying. Justifiable anachronisms, therefore, have to be made.

For of course, as with any historic investigation, it is impossible to reach to the ‘real’ truth, and costs, practicality, and the impossibility of time travel preclude any completely accurate recreation of the past. However, if you’re willing to accept and admit that, you can open yourselves up to wonder. It depends, of course, on your definition of authenticity. For Mark, an ‘authentic’ recreation and re-enactment comes from understanding the bridges and links which exist between historic periods and the present day, but also from recognizing that we are not the same as they were, that we can never be them or understand their real position in the world. A positivistic approach to history will always be a flawed one: there are things, feelings, mental and social worlds which we can never know, even those which belong to people of our own time, let alone those of people who lived and died a thousand years ago. It is only if we, museums, audiences and interpreters, can accept that all our professional and worldly actions are, to some extent, those of translation, then we can begin to truly see the valuable and authentic which is only generated through make believe.

‘ “The artist,” Jonah attempted to explain, “is not like every other worker in society. The artist deals with reality: inner and outer reality transformed into meaningful symbols. Those who deal in money deal in symbols behind which stands nothing. It is wonderful to think of the thousands and thousands of Ninevite stockbrokers for whom reality, the real world, is the arbitrary rising and falling of figures transformed in their imagination into wealth – a wealth that exists only on a piece of paper or on a flickering screen. No fantasy writer, no virtual reality artist could ever aspire to create in an audience such as all-pervading suspension of disbelief as that which takes place in an assembly of stockbrokers. Grown up men and women who will not for a minute consider the reality of the unicorn, even as a symbol, will accept as rick hard fact that they possess a share in the nation’s camel bellies, and in that belief they consider themselves happy and secure.” ’ Alberto Manguel, ‘Jonah and the Whale’, pp.239-252, (p. 245), Into the Looking Glass Wood, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 1999)


Stephanie said…
Thanks for the write-up! I thought your end quotation was very effective.
@Stephanie, I second that. Well written article.
Jenny said…
Thank you very much both! It was fun to write, and a fun presentation.

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