Sleuthing monk takes to the stage

A habit of detection: Gareth Thomas gives a wonderfully  understated performance as amatuer mediaevil detective Cadfael

Cadfael – The Virgin in the Ice

Wolverhampton Grand

***

BRINGING 12th century Welsh Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael and his chronicles to the stage was never going to be the easiest of tasks - which could explain why, 19 years after the last novel, radio plays and a TV series - this is the first theatrical attempt.

Sadly, the dramatisation seems to have lost its way a little in the drifting snow. The Virgin in the Ice is set in the bitter winter of 1139, in the midst of a civil war, the Anarchy, between the daughter of Henry I, Matilda, Empress Maude, and his nephew King Stephen who had captured the throne.

Cadfael is a monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, and although our amateur sleuth and the crimes he solves are fictional, the main characters are based on real people and real events which gives an air of historical authenticity to the dire deeds of those brutal times.

Michael Lunney, the former Birmingham University drama student who runs the excellent Middle Ground production company, adapted this Ellis Peters novel for the stage (Peters is the name Edith Pargeter used for her historical detective novels) and then directed, designed and produced it with its world premiere at the Grand this week prior to a tour.

The elements are all there but don't quite fit easily together - yet.

The staging is simple with a huge backcloth of the Benedictine Priory at Bromfield near Ludlow, where Cadfael has been called to treat a badly beaten monk, Brother Elyas, (George Telfer) waylaid by brigands.

That changes to the Salop hills or the cloisters of the Priory in a flash and there are some excellent special effects with a realistic blizzard and a near constant howling wind which makes the very effective Priory fire in its stone fireplace most welcoming for actors and audience alike. It is easy to shiver when the whole, cold, gloomy snow covered stage tells you it is bitter weather.

George Telfer as Brother Elyas whose attack in the snow sets the whole mystery into motion

The sets, minimalist, are equally effective whether a skeletal winter forest, a burned out home, forester's shelter or the Priory itself.

The one set which perhaps failed was also the biggest, the fortress of the thieves and vagabonds where the fight between Alain le Gaucher (Christopher Berry) the mercenary leader of the outlaws and our hero Olivier du Bretagne (Tom Kanji) on its small roof, less than the size of a boxing ring, struggles for any sort of authenticity – the added slow motion action to stylise the sword fight raised titters rather than gasps from the audience.

A bigger fortress would be impractical but a fight at stage level might help stop the mortal combat looking like a scene from Spamalot rather than a serious drama

Against that was a plus though with some authentic period music and Gregorian chants to help set and maintain the atmosphere.

With some scenes only a couple of lines long the story itself is a little confusing and bitty  at times, particularly as it is at a time in our history which is not the best known.

Lunney cleverly uses video projected on the back cloth to ahow where the action is taking place with mediaevil style maps of Shrewsbury and nearby villages, manors and priories.

It is also used for pre-filmed scenes involving the actors in snow covered landscapes as Cadfael investigates the rape and murder of a nun, Hilaria, (Jenny-May Darcy) whose body is found frozen solid in a brook – the virgin in the ice - and a missing brother and sister of noble birth who had escaped the sacking of Worcester by Maude's men.

Gareth Thomas (Blake's 7) makes an excellent Cadfael, the quiet, gentle and perceptive monk – and former Crusader - who sees with the forensic eye of a detective.

Daniel Murray as the nobly-born runaway Yves Hugonin

There are no histrionics or even glints of triumph, just a quiet and relentless pursuit of the truth and justice aided by the deputy Sherriff Hugh Beringar (Paul Hassell).

It is no surprise that he finds the missing noble children  Yves and Ermina Hugonin (Hannah Burton and Daniel Murray) and solves the mystery of  the murdered nun where Ermina's would-be lover Evrard Boterel (James Palmer) comes into play and goes a little over the top.

Coming to the rescue, or at least to take Ermina and Hugonin back to their uncle, Laurence d'Angers, recently returned from the Crusades, is Olivier, their uncle's squire, who is Ermina's real true love.

We find the handsome squire is the illegitimate son of a Moslem Syrian woman and a Christian Crusader and has chosen to follow the Cross rather than the Crescent – he was conceived at about the time our Cadfael was swinging his sword, so to speak, on Crusader duty so . . . .

To be honest, the play was somewhat of a disappointment. This was only the second night so a few teething troubles were to be expected with sound effects overrunning dialogue a couple of times perhaps losing a little of the plot - as we didn't hear we don't know. The plot was not helped either by a particularly bronchitic audience coughing their way through the scenes – that I suppose is the risk of a play set in a howling blizzard, the cold drifting from imagination to the chest.

The performance would be helped by an injection of pace, perhaps with more narration to reduce too many bitty scenes and it needs a change to that ineffective and comical fight scene - give it some room  to give it some real menace or at least excitement.

A few tweaks and changes would work wonders for there is a decent play waiting to emerge and Michael Lunney has been producing excellent drama long enough to ensure it will quickly find its way out. To 09-03-13

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile lurking in the cloisters . . .

***

THIS is the world premiere stage production of Ellis Peters' 1139 murder mystery, but it doesn't quite live up to expectations.

Apart from one spot of violence, the first act tends to limp along and members of the audience unfamiliar with the author's work might well feel a little confused.

The story surrounds the attempt by Brother Cadfael, a kind of clerical Poirot, to find an orphaned boy and his beautiful teenage sister, of noble stock, who fled north from Worcester, accompanied by a young nun, sister Hilaria.

Eventually Cadfael, convincingly played by veteran actor Gareth Thomas (Blake's 7), discovers the nun's body under ice, and is horrified that she has been abused and murdered.

The medieval Shrewsbury-based sleuth has to find who committed the crime while the search continues for the Ermina and Yves Bagonin (Hannah Burton and Daniel Murray).

Where this Middle Ground Theatre Company production scores well is in the staging, with clever sets, good lighting and a very realistic snow storm, with brief parts of the story shown on a screen at the rear of the stage. And the bespoke music suits the story perfectly.

It falls well short, however, with the sword fight on top of a timber fort, performed in almost slow motion, suggesting health and safety experts may have had an input.

The action did improve in the second act, suggesting the play could be a hit with more attention to the opening scenes. At times some of the dialogue was difficult to catch on press night, although several members of the audience suffering severe attacks of coughing didn't help.

Adapted, designed and directed by Michael Lunney, the medieval drama runs to 09.03.13

Paul Marston

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