Souls of the North – A Review

By Eleanor Dye, Second year English Literature student. ‘Souls of the North’ was a series of performances showing the traditions that preceded Halloween. 

Photo credit: Michael Baker. Shared under the terms of the  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Original image.

On Saturday 10th November I went to see a production called ‘Souls of the North’ in Castle Great Hall- the perfect venue for a medieval performance. Describing itself as a showcase of Medieval and Renaissance drama and music, the production also managed to encompass folk songs and a duel, woven into a thoroughly captivating narrative. Whilst I’m sure Christmas is the festivity on everyone’s mind, this event took the opportunity to explore North Eastern and Scottish ways of celebrating the dead before the advent of modern Halloween.

The first performance involved a dragon and three puppeteers. The dragon was based upon a 400 year old mythological beast allegedly stemming from Ethiopia. The dragon is said to have embarked upon a quest to Durham and its antics are the preface of the play. This particular model was a medieval stage dragon resembling a serpent that was recreated for the Theatrum Mundi show by the same company in 2016.

This is the full video of the 2016 performance – Skip to 43.08 to see the dragon in action

Audience involvement brought an immersive element to the play that is often lacking in modern day theatre – we were all invited to the stage to learn the medieval dances of the era. The dragon was also remarkably life-like, and the puppeteers did a wonderful job in dramatising the dragon through various emotive devices. I particularly enjoyed the comical look of frustration it held when the duel began.

The most memorable performance for me was the souling song and dance. These ‘souling plays’ are plays of death and resurrection – involving stock characters such as King George, a Quack Doctor and the skull of a horse. The plays were originally performed in order to beg for soul cakes, in many ways an anticipation of modern day trick-or-treating. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to try soul cakes during the performance. These small cakes (which could also be called biscuits) were traditionally given out for All Soul’s Day in order to commemorate the dead.

Shared under the terms of the  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Original image.

A danse macabre, or ‘dance of death’, was given by performers dressed as skeletons who again engaged with the audience. This dance was to emphasise the universality of death and the idea of death as a leveller – typically showing a personification of death leading people from all walks of life towards the grave. (See 37.45 minutes into the video above.)

Photo by Michael Baker. Shared under the terms of the  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Original image.

All music for the production was played live with medieval and traditional instruments, and the songs were sung by various members of the cast. At the end of the performance a lament called ‘Poor Old Horse’ was sung, a song often sang by beggars in an attempt to secure the evening supper.  

All in all, the performances were certainly unusual but they were very successful in giving an introduction to Northern medieval drama.  The informative handouts gave those interested further insight into the occasion and the variety of performances with songs, dances and duels exemplify why the show has sold out every year – with the unexpected addition of soul cakes I’m sure being a reason why. 

The performance was filmed and should soon be available online. For further information look here.

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