Performance, Memory and Cultural Heritage in the UK and Japan

The University of Kent and Kogakkan University, Japan, were awarded funding by the AHRC and ESRC for the project ‘Performance, Memory and Cultural Heritage in the UK and Japan’.

The project breaks new ground in both its area of comparative focus on UK and Japanese performance cultures, and its practice-as-research, site-specific methodology. Those involved conceive of ‘performance’ broadly, giving due consideration not only to theatrical performance but also forms of cultural performativity and ritualized performance in both a premodern and modern context. The planned research is built around four key themes: (1) transmission, (2) faith, (3) space, and (4) gender. These themes were selected based upon affinities between pre-modern Japanese and UK performance practices and traditions: the transmission of plays, rituals, and performance set-pieces orally, textually, and experientially; the interrogation of religious identity and ritual; site-specific performance spaces and moveable performance pieces; and issues related to gender performativity (cross-dressed performers) and construction. The scholars involved aim to explore these themes through workshops, and to use that work (on-site and via online display) to build a broader methodology for studying the role of the practices they research in contemporary cultural heritage.

The interdisciplinary project builds upon a longstanding research and teaching relationship between Kent and Kogakkan. The project’s P.I. is Dr. Rory Loughnane in the School of English. The Co-I’s on this project from Kent are Dr. Sarah Dustagheer, Dr. Nancy Gaffield, Dr. Ryan Perry, Prof. Catherine Richardson, and Dr. Clare Wright. Dr. Chris Mayo is the project lead on the Kogakkan side, working with Prof. Terumasa Nakagawa and Prof. Tomohiko Okano.

In early June 2019, in Phase Two of the project, the team of researchers from Kogakkan spent six days in Canterbury and London, engaging in a series of workshops led by colleagues in the School of English at Kent.

Day 1

On Monday 10th June, the delegation travelled to London in order to explore surviving and reconstructed sites of performance. Led by Dr. Sarah Dustagheer, the investigators began their tour outside the reconstructed Globe, an important monument to the cultural heritage of Shakespearean performance. They then made their way to the original site of the Bear Gardens, the Rose and the Globe. They discussed early modern animal baiting and the way in which this early modern form of entertainment existed close by to theatre spaces, and came to influence the language and imagery of plays. At the site of the Globe they considered the biography of Sam Wanamaker, the reconstructed Globe’s founder. Arriving in London in the early 1970s, Wanamaker was surprised to find no substantial monument dedicated to Shakespeare near the site of his most famous theatre. Wanamaker began a lifelong mission to gather funds and reconstruct the Globe. They considered the operation of cultural memory and how Wanamaker’s mission relied upon a sense of shared heritage, a sense of Shakespearean theatre. Next, they moved on to the George Inn on Borough High Street, an example of early modern inn and inn-yard architecture. Before the establishment of purpose-built playhouses, actors performed in found spaces, such as inn-yards. Looking at the architecture of this space, the investigators noted the similarities to the frons scenae of the early modern playhouse and considered the interrelation between socio-cultural buildings and those used for performance. They also discussed differences in the patronage system for pre-modern Japanese/English actors and dramatists. After lunch, they visited Southwark Cathedral, noting the way in which the cathedral commemorates literary figures such as Chaucer, Gower and Shakespeare. Finally, the delegation walked over the Millennium Bridge and visited St Paul’s Cathedral and Paternoster Square – the heart of the pre-modern preaching and printing culture. They considered the cross-over between oral and textual cultures in this period, the performed sermon which is then quickly printed for purchase. All in all, the day provided a useful discussion and grounded examples of some of the key themes of the exchange: cultural memory, communities and audiences in the past and the present, heritage and oral/print cultures.

Day 2

On Tuesday 12th June, the investigators travelled to the market town of Faversham, some ten miles from the University of Kent. First, the delegation walked through the centre of the town, stopping at the Faversham Guildhall. This was the site where Queen Elizabeth I was entertained on her visit to Faversham in 1572. Led by Prof. Catherine Richardson, the group then walked down the picturesque Abbey Street, one of the best-preserved streets of timber-framed medieval and early modern buildings in England’s southeast. Next, the group moved on to Thomas Arden’s residence at the end of the street. This was the site of a real-life murder in 1551. Alice Arden, wife to Thomas, hired killers to murder her husband so that she could be with her lover, Richard Mosby. These grim events inspired the late Elizabethan play, Arden of Faversham (written 1588, and published in 1592), parts of which are now attributed to William Shakespeare.

Prof. Richardson then led the group to the garden behind the house, where they had permission to act out several passages from the play. The investigators discussed past performances of the play at this site, and the unusual place the scandalous murder holds in the local cultural memory. Next, the group followed the path that the real-life murderers took in escaping the scene of the crime. Prof. Richardson, who is currently editing the play, discussed how the local context has informed her editorial approach.

After lunch, the group then moved on to St. Mary of Charity Church in central Faversham. The afternoon session, organized and led Dr. Ryan Perry, was intended to introduce the delegates to a sense of the history, and functions of a medieval town parish church.  The session began with Catriona Cuthbert, (St Mary’s parish secretary),providing the group with a summary of the church’s long history, and providing a sense of some of the most interesting material features of the church (such as the extraordinary misericords which were rescued from Faversham priory when it was dissolved during the Reformation- Faversham priory, of course, represents some of the appropriated property which had benefitted the unfortunate Arden family, who had been the subject of the morning session).

Angela Websdale, a PhD student at the University of Kent, talked to the delegation about the Anchorite’s cell that was attached to the church (still evidenced by the ‘squint’, the slit in the wall that provided visual access to the church- and specifically to the high altar and to the painted pillar). Angela continued to give some context to this painted pillar, which dates back to 1306, and explained some of the significant aspects of this painted depiction of Christ’s life. These images had only been saved from iconoclasts of the Reformation because they had been white-washed. Finally, Angela took members of the delegation to see further relics of the church’s original painted schemes behind the organ that similarly date to the late thirteenth / early-fourteenth centuries (a highly unusual scheme linking Faversham to Westminster through the conjunction of St Edmund the Confessor and St John the Evangelist).

The session ended with the performance of an excerpt from a Middle English text dating to the fourteenth century, The Meditations on the Supper of Our Lord, and Hours of the Passion, which was intended to be performed within a church (it addresses a ‘congregatioun’, and calls for responses from its audience). This text appears to have made use of material features within a church, and perhaps even images from the Life of Christ as depicted on the painted pillar- and thus the performance took place in front of this visual and spiritually evocative ‘prop’. Dr. Ryan Perry performed the text, assisted by Christopher Mayo, who translated the performance into Japanese for the benefit of the delegation. A modern English translation was provided for everyone, for ease of understanding. There was some concluding discussion of the utility of these kinds of texts within the church space.

Day 3

On Wednesday 12th June 2019, Dr. Clare Wright and Dr. Nancy Gaffield led the final workshop session, entitled ‘Keeping the Past Alive Through Contemporary Performance.’ In the first part of this session, Dr. Wright introduced the group to and discussed a recent performance undertaken by the ‘Cultures of Performance’ research cluster: a performance of extracts from John Bale’s sixteenth-century polemical play, King John, at St Stephen’s Church, Canterbury. One of the stated aims of the wider Performance, Memory and Cultural Heritage exchange is to explore the role that pre-modern performance played in the shaping of national and cultural identities, and the legacy it has left behind for us today. It is on how the St Stephen’s project spoke to this aim that Dr. Wright focused.  After providing a little background to the project (aims, objectives, collaborators, etc.) and some key historical contexts for the play (the playwright, the Reformation, performance records, etc.), Dr. Wright outlined the purpose and effects of one of the project’s central innovations: the projection of medieval wall paintings back onto the white-washed walls of St Stephen’s. Showing first an image of the chancel arch of St Stephen’s church as it currently looks, the group was then shown a photo of the same arch with the Coventry Doom wall painting projected onto it. The group then went through some of the audience responses to the images, and the performance as a whole, discussing in particular how the images changed the ways the audience responded to the site, how the performance brought the local history of the Reformation to the fore (including its material impact on the church building), and the trans-historical themes picked up by the audience, as gathered through post-performance questionnaires. These responses showed that, not only did the project encourage its audience to re-think and re-imagine a cultural space that was quite familiar to them, but also illustrated how ‘historic’ drama can still speak to the here-and-now, and the important ways in which the past still relates to, perhaps even shapes, modern British culture and society.

The series of workshops and events were followed up by a ‘wash-up’ meeting in Canterbury city centre involving the team of investigators. Both the Kent and Kogakkan teams drew up sets of key observations, which were then discussed. The Kogakkan delegation, for example, noted that the Kent scholars placed a particular emphasis on audiences, communities, readers, and questions of transmission and mediation. Both groups reflected on the question of what does cultural memory mean in a performance context, and gave consideration to the importance of premodern historical/performance traditions for modern audiences/readers/societies.

Dr. Rory Loughnane ended proceedings for this part of the project by thanking the Kogakkan scholars for sharing their research at Kent, and expressing his gratitude to colleagues for planning and organizing such a thought-provoking and enriching series of events. In Phase Three, the Kent scholars will travel to the Ise region in Japan to conduct a series of workshops on premodern Japanese performance and ritual.

By Dr Rory Loughnane

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