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Chapter 5

Steeleye Book

Chapter Five

Theatre and Television

Steeleye's involvement with the theatre started when the band gave a concert at the Royal Court, London in October '70. This was during a period when the theatre was running weekly pop concerts and when members of the theatrical establishment were likely to turn up to find out what was going on in the rock scene. Among those who came to see Steeleye Mk.2 were a staff director at the Royal Court, Bill Bryden and the writer, Keith Dewhurst.

Just two months later, Steeleye were on stage. The play was called Pirates, written by Dewhurst and directed by Bryden. They had originally asked Martin Carthy to provide the music for it but at the last minute he discovered he was too busy. Maddy,Tim and Pete filled in, driving overnight from Sunderland to start rehearsing at the Royal Court the next morning. The play had its one performance the following evening. Tim "can't remember a thing about it, but we kept coming on in market places and things like that".

Even so, Keith Dewhurst was impressed enough to write a special play around Steeleye - and this was to involve five actors as well as all five members of the band. The play was Corunna, the story of soldiers and camp-followers travelling across Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. Tyger was the narrator, Pete was a soldier who had his tongue pulled out and could only communicate by playing the violin, Martin was a soldier left behind to hold off the approaching French horsemen and Maddy was a camp-follower. The play was about the miseries of war and dealt indirectly with the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution which had pushed men into the army. Tim says that Steeleye were "excited at putting the band into a theatre and using the band as actors. And a period play about the Napoleonic times, when ordinary people would have used traditional song, was an ideal way to use our music.

The play ran Upstairs at the Royal Court from May 17 to 23, '71, and in June was taken on tour around Britain. The production was relaxed, rather like a pub show and was re-staged at every hall - in Liverpool, for instance, it was performed in the round.

The only disaster was at Harrogate. The first section of the play ended with sound-effects of galloping horses at which the band Were to shout "it's the French horsemen, let's move!" On this occasion the tape was mysteriously replaced with one of organ music. For what seemed an eternity they just stood there, then someone shouted "it's the French organists, let's move!" Collapse of serious play.

Corunna was so successful that the play was offered a second London run at the Young Vic, in the autumn of '71. All the band except Tyger Hutchings wanted to do it and his wishes prevailed. The disagreements over this were one of the reasons Steeleye Mk.2 split up.

Next summer, in July '72, Steeleye Mk.3 were back treading the boards in a third Bryden/Dewhurst collaboration. This time it was a dramatisation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, and a production with the Scottish National Theatre Company at the Lyceum, Edinburgh. Steeleye mostly played musicians and sailors and the rest of the cast included a number of comedy actors who gradually reduced the play to the slapstick level. The author was horrified at the ad-libs and wise-cracks when he came along to see it.

The cast and Steeleye had a good time though and for some reason Bob became the main victim of the band's practical jokes during the run. At night they chorused animal noises outside his window and on stage the stunts became more elaborate. One night as he was singing his solo "my name is David Balfour from bonnie Essendene", a stage-hand appeared in the wings (invisible to the audience) wearing nothing but a pig's head. Collapse of serious song.

The theatrical experience gave the band confidence to attempt more elaborate staging of their own shows. Rick suggested they should perform 'The Lyke Wake Dirge' that eerie chant about the voyage of the dead through purgatory and Maddy dressed the band for the part. They came on like weird medieval spacemen (actually wearing cassocks from St. Albans church covered in ribbons). On the first night they wore them at the Colston Hall, Bristol, Maddy insisted "if anyone in the audience laughs we'll all run off". No-one laughed for the effect was startling, even a little frightening. Later in America, the band got used to the sight of the more stoned, drunk or plain nervous fans actually running from the hall in horror when the 'Lyke Wake Dirge' started.

In May, '74, Steeleye introduced a full theatrical element into their set - their own electronic rock touring version of a medieval mummers' play. The idea was Maddy's but was researched and written by Tim. He read through all the existing versions and decided they were "total rubbish" because the vivid characterisation and symbolism of the original plays had been watered down or lost. In his version he tried to make it clear that Bold Thrasher The Turkish Knight was the spirit of winter, that The King Of Egypt's Daughter was the spirit of spring and that her marriage to St. George the life-force, represented the re-birth of spring.

The Mummers' Play was performed on a British tour (including a show at the Albert Hall in London) and was taken to America and Australia in the summer of'74. The band appeared in full costume, wearing masks and mimed their parts to a pre-recorded soundtrack. For the most part it all worked remarkably well but there were two disasters. In Portsmouth, someone had spilled beer over a flash-box filled with gunpowder that was to explode as Nigel jumped over it. It went off all right, but fused every light in the hall and the PA system. So the band were left stranded, dressed in crazy masks and with no soundtrack to mime to. They sheepishly had to resort to acoustic tunes.

In Australia the hand arrived at Perth to find that the mummers' play tapes had been left a couple of thousand miles away in Canberra. There was no time to fly them in so the tapes were played down the telephone line and recorded. Unfortunately no-one noticed that they'd got a crossed line. As the band were miming to the tape on stage a woman's voice suddenly boomed out, discussing her laundry.

The mummers' play was resurrected in the summer of'75, when Steeleye performed it on one of six half-hour BBC TV Specials. For these shows the band gave special concerts at some of Britain's most famous or beautiful stately homes. like Warwick Castle, Thoresby Hall and the New Inn, Gloucester and on each they performed the equivalent of an album's worth of material. The six programmes remain the best visual record of Steeleye Span.

Boyesen Enterprises Ltd 1978

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