In December 1984, while enrolled on Manchester Polytechnic’s Art Foundation Course, I spent a month working with Horse & Bamboo Theatre, along with half a dozen other students.
Horse & Bamboo, a visual theatre company which specialised in masked performance, had been commissioned (oddly enough) to produce a Christmas Crib for Manchester Cathedral, which was intended to be used over the following decade.
The crib figures were made from layered fabric, stitched painstakingly onto a simple wooden framework. The crib ‘canopy’ was an enormous embroidered piece of cloth, suspended centrally and pegged down at the sides like a tent, which represented the mythical moment when all creation paused to acknowledge the birth of God’s son.
An elaborate performance was designed for the Crib’s Dedication Ceremony and it was this effort that we students were drafted in to support. The Cathedral authorities were apparently not too enthusiastic about the performance and were therefore kept in the dark about its scale until the last moment.
Many of the costumes were very simple. We used bamboo, withies (willow sticks), cardboard and scrap timber to make most of the props. The full-head masks were made from celastic and acetone, applied to clay models, using a method similar to papier mache.
Bob Frith, the Director, explained that the images were designed to appeal to the sub-conscious; the play mirrored the Christmas story, representing a journey from darkness into light; the Unicorn symbolised purity and salvation and the City was the ‘anti-Crib’ which was why it was red and ended up stage-left, opposite the white Crib, stage-right. This account was useful, but it did not begin to explain the structure and style of the performance, which left us fascinated but a bit confused.
Rehearsals took place between normal Cathedral activities. An enormous trailer was parked in a carpark on the other side of Deansgate and we would stop the traffic several times a day moving unwieldy props in and out of store.
Not many parts required acting ability but we had some significant logistical problems to contend with. For instance, we had to carry lighted candles, taped to bamboo frames, through the fifteenth century oak choir stalls, up and down steps, wearing full head masks and blinded by clouds of dry ice. In the last scene, these ‘candleships’ were placed like offerings in front of the gluey, clothy Crib.
I was given the job of fire-proofing the Crib on my own, between rehearsals, and I remember envisaging a more dramatic finale than anyone anticipated if I didn’t do a thorough job.
Miraculously, there was no inferno and no-one was accidentally crushed by an enormous falling bamboo structure.
On the night of the performance, there was a full house; we spied on the audience from inside our masks. We could see from their expressions that the illusion worked!
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During the summer of 1985, my friend Liz and I helped Horse & Bamboo move out of their old workshop in the Rossendale Uplands (a freezing hovel with a chemical toilet, surrounded by collapsing industrial ruins) to a disused foundry in Rawtenstall, which was mercifully close to the Asda superstore. We cleaned the foundry building by day and slept there by night, which turned out to be a very poor decision on health grounds.
While rooting around the Foundry one evening, we discovered huge lino printing blocks stashed away with the company’s old posters; these were intense images, black on white.
Suddenly the reasons behind local distrust of the theatre company became clearer; Horse & Bamboo had attibuted boycotts of their early performances to small-town, anti-Southern prejudice, but had failed to mention their unusual and provocative publicity campaigning style:
The following September, while Liz was coughing up heavy metal deposits somewhere in Cornwall, I was swanning round the newly-opened Cornerhouse Galleries in Manchester, and I found myself looking at some very familiar looking prints!
The exhibition was entitled ‘The German Woodcut In The Twentieth Century.’
Suddenly half of Manchester seemed to be raving about Expressionism; we’d been surrounded by it for months and we didn’t even know what it was called!
Further reading revealed that the German Expressionists were not only painters and printmakers but were also heavily involved with the development of experimental, avant-garde theatre.
The ‘first Expressionist performance’ is considered to be a piece created by Oskar Kokoschka in Vienna called ‘Murder, Hope Of Women’ (1909), the plot of which bares some resemblance to Horse & Bamboo’s ‘Ballad of Ellen Strange’ (1978).
As Expressionist theatre developed in Germany, artists and dramatists explored various methods of presenting psychological internal reality dramatically and visually. The primitive school favoured the total expression of the ‘Schrei’ (scream), while the abstract school favoured a detached, symbolic performance style, harking back to an ancient mode of story telling – the episodic ‘Stationdrama’, probably named after The Stations Of The Cross.
So finally I began to grasp where Horse & Bamboo’s ideas came from.
(Other influences included Peter Schumann’s Bread + Puppet Theatre in America, and Welfare State Theatre Company based in Ulverston, in Cumbria.)
You can read more about Horse & Bamboo on their website at www.horseandbamboo.org.
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When we weren’t rooting, Liz and I spent our Foundry evenings playing our favourite music at top volume, impressed by the echoey acoustics and the sinister, shadowy interior illuminated by moonlight and a solitary streetlamp shining in through high windows:
Killing Joke – Love Like Blood (1985)
In this way, we doubtless helped to improve Horse & Bamboo’s relationship with their neighbours no end.
The The – I’ve Been Waiting For Tomorrow All Of My Life (1983)