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Biblical floods back in Newcastle after 500 years

The tradition of the mystery play is being revived on Tyneside

Newcastle University students will perform 'The Building of The Ark at Newcastle's Castle Keep
Newcastle University students will perform 'The Building of The Ark' at Newcastle's Castle Keep

A rich tradition that died out nearly 500 years ago is being revived at Newcastle’s Castle Keep this week.

Mystery plays, put on by the craftsmens’ guilds, were a yearly sight on the city’s streets in medieval times, creating a carnival atmosphere.

With floods on a seemingly Biblical scale having been in the news, Henrike Laehnemann, professor of German Studies, is expecting Newcastle University’s production of the play Building of the Ark to resonate with a modern audience.

“As far as we know, there has been no public performance of this play, the only one of the Newcastle Cycle to survive, since the 16th Century,” says Prof Laehnemann. “It would have originally taken place in the old part of the city, which the Castle Keep is in the heart of, so it’s a perfect location for this re-enactment.

“It’s wonderful to be able to perform the shipwrights’ play – the one dedicated to showcasing their trade - in a city with such a strong shipbuilding history.

“We have taken a few liberties with the original format, such as casting the Devil and God as bankers in suits and Noah in his pyjamas, but throughout history this has been a playful genre where the players improvise, with plenty of musical interludes.”

As well as directing the play, Prof Laehnemann will be providing some of the musical accompaniment on a serpent, a kind of medieval horn, with her early music group, Newcastle Waits.

The re-enactment project brings together first year German and English literature students who, in the grand tradition of the style, will be delivering plenty of puns within the short text.

Dr Harriet Archer, a Leverhulme early career fellow at Newcastle University, has written a new prologue which she will read town crier style.

In Building of the Ark, the Devil is looking for a way to survive the flood and plans to seduce Noah’s wife so he can get the secret of how to make another ark.

Originally the players, none of whom were professional actors, would have followed a route down from Blackfriars, past the old market places of Newgate, Bigg Market and Cloth Market to Amen Corner at St Nicholas’ Cathedral and onto the Quayside where the play would take place during Corpus Christi celebrations in June.

Traditionally, the shipwrights’ guild’s showcase would have been followed by the mariners’ guild play, The Flood, completing the Noah’s Ark story.

The free event takes place at the Castle Keep on Friday at 5pm and is sponsored by the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Group at Newcastle University.

Complementary ‘small beer’ – a weak alcoholic beverage used at a time when water was unsafe to drink – will be served on the roof if the weather permits.

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