Feedback and evaluation for A DAUGHTER’S TALE
Extract of Press review, Simon Parker, Western Morning News, 06.04.2012:
A Daughter's Tale was the idea of composer, choir leader and retired teacher Nick Hart, who had long wanted to tell the story of the 9th century holy man and healer who gave his name to the moorland village. Described as a musical drama, every word of the play's narrative was told through songs composed by Nick over the past two years. And St Neot Church, with its famed stained glass windows, granite pillars and arches, provided the most apt site-specific location imaginable.
Involving singers and musicians from across East Cornwall, as well as a team of costume and prop makers, lighting and sound technicians, plus the services of the local WI and Young Farmers' Club, the entire process was conceived, created and performed by the community.
With three sell-out performances and three standing ovations, the creative team of musical director Nick Hart and director Olwyn Foot said they were "thrilled and delighted" by the response....
Despite a huge cast and chorus – many of whom were unused to acting and singing at the same time – director Olwyn Foot transformed what might have been merely a pleasant choral evening into a thoughtful and moving piece of drama. Filled with colour and movement, as is her trademark, the church – with its rearranged pews – became a Cornish medieval village, a holy well, a Saxon court, a banqueting hall and a deer hunt.
Although essentially a history play ... it is certain that audiences will have taken a great deal from this production.
When future arts funders and others attempt to describe the meaning, spirit and role of "community theatre", they would do well to consider all of those involved in the creation of A Daughter's Tale.
However, with only six hundred tickets available over three nights, many people were left disappointed, so it can only be hoped that Nick Hart's triumph might one day be revived.
Scene One (a settlement in Cornwall)
The year is 858 AD. The young monk Neot is looking for a place to set up his mission. He finds a small settlement (Lanweryr, later to be known as St Neot) where he is drawn by the angelic sounds of the stream. The angel of the stream tells him to live by the perplexing creed of ‘take what you need and not what you want’. Neot returns to his home in Glastonbury to ask his release from his king’s service as mentor to the young Prince Alfred.
Scene Two (Saxon court at Glastonbury)
The ageing King Aethelwulf is at the end of his reign, unhappily married to his second, and much younger, wife Judith, who is enjoying the attentions of the king’s second son Aethelbald. His youngest son Alfred is being tutored by the monk Neot.
Neot and Prince Alfred play a game of chess, in which the importance of the queen becomes apparent. The bored prince goads his mentor into a mock fight, wielding a sword far too big for him, and cuts himself badly. Neot easily stops the bleeding.
Neot asks Aethelwulf about the state of his kingdom and of his marriage. They reflect on the duty of marrying to strengthen the kingdom, not for personal pleasure. (Duet: A King cannot go where his heart will take him.) Aethelwulf is sad that Neot is leaving Glastonbury; he will be missed, not least by Alfred.
Scene Two (part 2)
Bishop Asser, the official court biographer, keeps two records – one that will read well for future generations, and one of his own, and much more cynical, observations. He tells his ‘housekeeper’ Elvina that the reason Neot really left Glastonbury was to escape the responsibilities of a youthful indiscretion which had resulted in a daughter. (Solo and duet: A story’s like a spider’s web)
Scene Three (About 9 years later, at Glastonbury)
Alfred, now a young man, is just leaving the bed of his beautiful young mistress, who is still asleep. He sings of his deep love for her (Morninglight); but he is troubled by his duty, which is to find a fitting queen for the kingdom he will shortly inherit. He wishes he could speak with his old mentor, Neot, who would have advised him what to do. His mistress, Lethelt, wakes and hears him instruct Bishop Asser to set up a visit to the Celtic kingdom of Cornwall where Neot now lives. She begs Alfred to let her go with him. Alfred refuses, but Asser suggests that her delightful singing might please the suspicious Celts. Alfred agrees to let her go with the party, but very much in the background.
Left alone, Lethelt sings of the loneliness of her love (Clouds), and of how she feels let down by both Alfred and her father who is - known only to her - Neot himself.
The court of King Donierth at Liskerryth, Cornwall
King Donierth (The last King of Cornwall) welcomes the Saxon Bishop Asser who comes bringing assurances of goodwill from Prince Alfred. Donierth’s courtiers are highly suspicious of anything to do with the Saxons, but Donierth believes Alfred has a better way, and the last thing Donierth wants is a war to end their days. To make Alfred welcome would be more sensible (Stand tall and let the Saxon breeze blow by you). Asser returns with an invitation to hunt deer in Donierth’s deer park.
Scene Five - Lanweryr
The villagers are engaged in ‘the good life’, working at their trades with honest and conscious simplicity (Beat out the chaff of vain existence). Neot is encouraging their idealism to live by the creed of ‘take what you need and not what you want’.
Alfred arrives dressed in the ‘cloth of simplicity’. Neot recognises Alfred but respects his anonymity and takes him aside to talk. Alfred confesses to two big problems, one physical (we are told he had severe piles and probably Crohn’s disease as well!) and the other emotional. Neot’s cure for the former is to make Alfred squat in the cold running water of the river while Alfred tells him about the latter (O Gentle Love). Neot asks if Alfred’s love will result in a good marriage for the kingdom. When he says no, Neot tells him what he must do. (Tell her soft and low, but tell her she must go)
In a very brief interview, Bishop Asser takes some delight in telling Lethelt, on behalf of Alfred, that she can no longer be his ‘whore’.
Banquet at Liskerryth before the deer hunt
Both Alfred’s and Donierth’s courts are feasting and rejoicing. A very dejected Lethelt is also present. Donierth calls for entertainment from the Saxon bards. Alfred offers instead that Lethelt should sing. She is very reluctant to perform, but is commanded and obeys. She sings ‘ a song my father taught me’ (My day is born in skylark blue) which at once Neot recognises. He is distraught not only to discover his daughter but also terrified for his reputation, that she might disclose their relationship as father and daughter. Donierth, meanwhile, is transfixed by Lethelt’s beauty and is certain that her singing is just a prelude to something far more enjoyable with her.
As the evening progresses, a wager is suggested to make the deer hunt of tomorrow more exciting. Donierth challenges Alfred. Alfred bets that if he kills more game than Donierth, then Donierth’s deer park will be his prize. Donierth accepts this high stake, but wagers that if he wins, then he should be allowed to court the attentions of Alfred’s young singer. Alfred is aghast, but cannot decline. Neot tries to intervene, but stammers into silence when challenged by the two men. The courtiers are delighted. (By sunset of tomorrow who will the richer be? Alfred with his deer park, Donierth with a singer he can dandle on his knee?) The scene is set for a great day’s sport and very high stakes.
Scene One (By the Holy well at Lanweryr)
Neot is dejected by his inability to acknowledge Lethelt (I cannot tell her by the fountain). She approaches and confronts Neot. Despite obvious tenderness between them, Lethelt is angered by his cowardice. In the distance the sound of the hunt is heard. She scorns Neot with: ‘Listen! The hunt. My destiny decided by dogs. What father could possibly quarrel with that!’
The action of the hunt is conveyed by the onlookers. First Alfred is in the ascendant and then Donierth. As the day draws on one final stag will decide the outcome. Neot, however, disgusted by this awful spectacle, takes the skin of one of the carcasses and draws the hounds off the trail as they chase him. The final stag escapes and the result is a draw.
Scene Three and Four
Banquet Hall at Liskerryth
Asser is catching up on his diaries and deciding with Elvina what to include in the official entry. They are disturbed by the hunters returning for their celebrations. Both Alfred and Donierth are displeased. They are goaded by the Mistress of Ceremonies with her double
entendres at their expense. (Our kings stand proud and long for tender meat to roast)
Donierth challenges Alfred to resolve the stalemate one way or another, but Alfred feels that a draw was the best result all round. Donierth says that there should be no problem then if he quietly got on with his courting while Alfred hunts his woods. Alfred bridles but it is Neot who finally intervenes and declares openly that he is her father. (You can’t take Lethelt and use her … I’m her father and she belongs with me.)
Lethelt, however, is having none of this. She pours scorn on all three men in turn and leaves. As the banquet disperses, only the delighted Bishop Asser remains, jotting it all down in his various books. (Miracles, power, majesty and mystery; So much to enjoy in contemporary history!)
The Holy Well at Lanweryr
Neot and Lethelt regret the words spoken in anger at the banquet. Neot pleads with her to stay and help him with his mission. They are disturbed, however, by Alfred who asks Lethelt to come back to him and be his muse and resume their love. Neot says that she should only do so if Alfred will marry her. Lethelt angrily demands to know when anyone will ask her what she wants. All she wants is freedom to sing and be herself. (Staring at the pictures on the walls inside my mind) Alfred concedes her request and offers her a ring as a sign of his offered protection.
Donierth interrupts the scene and claims his right as the local king to take Lethelt if he wants. Alfred draws his sword and the two men fight. Lethelt intervenes and is struck, fatally it seems, by Alfred’s sword. The men are remorseful at the stupidity of their actions and ask Neot what can be done to save her. Neot tells them to ‘lay down their weapons and make friendship their new vow. Let her music flourish and the buds of learning flower; Protect your people’s freedom, then you’ll profit from your power.’ While healing Lethelt he extracts a promise from the two men to honour his daughter’s wishes.
Asser, who had unusually missed all of this, asks what has occurred. Neot dictates what he should write. Asser is quietly outraged at Lethelt’s moral victory. The large crowd that witnessed the fight and the reconciliation join in supporting Lethelt’s quest for freedom to pursue her own path. Assured of safe passage she strikes out on her own to pursue her new mission with evangelical zeal and with the complete support of both royal households. (Dominus reget me - The Lord leads me and I want for nothing)
Nothing is known for certain about the life of St Neot. He is variously described as being a soldier, a dwarf, a royal relative of Alfred, a Celt or a Saxon. He is strongly linked to Alfred in legend and it is known from Bishop Asser’s biography that Alfred visited the village: - ‘When [Alfred] had finished praying (at St Neot) he felt himself divinely cured from that malady.’ Alfred is reported to have suffered terribly from piles as a young man, and some have suggested also from Crohn’s disease. From the dates, it is possible that Alfred and Neot met on that occasion.
Bishop Asser was part of Alfred’s royal household and wrote a flattering biography in Alfred’s own lifetime. Asser makes clear, however, that Alfred tried and failed to resist the temptations of the flesh as a young man: ‘When in the first flowering of his youth, before he had married his wife, he wished to confirm in his mind God’s commandments, and when he realised that he was unable to abstain from carnal desire, fearing that he would incur God’s disfavour if he did anything contrary to His will, he very often got up secretly in the morning at cockcrow and visited churches and relics of the saints in order to pray; he lay there prostrate for a long while, turning himself totally to God, praying that Almighty God through His mercy would more staunchly strengthen his resolve in the love of His service by means of some illness which he would be able to tolerate, - not, however, that God would make him unworthy and useless in worldly affairs.’
At the time of our story, Alfred was heir to the Saxon throne, which commanded only Wessex. It would be many years before he could claim to be the first king of all England. The Wessex kingdom was perpetually at war on its northern borders with the Danes. To its southwest lay what was left of the Celtic kingdom of Dumnomia. The Devon part of this had previously been ‘absorbed’ by Wessex leaving hardly a trace of language even in the place names. Some have suggested a devastating ethnic cleansing of Devon by the Saxons. Cornwall was by this time a sub-kingdom of Wessex as well.
It is understandable, then, that Donierth (Doniert - the final t would have been pronounced th - also spelt Donyarth, Dumnarth, Dufnarth, Dumgarth) the last king of Cornwall should have wanted to be on good terms with Alfred, but the Cornish may have been highly suspicious of Saxon motives. I am surmising that if Alfred visited Cornwall, even as a prince, it is probable that he would have done so with Donierth’s knowledge, co-operation and even hospitality. Donierth is believed to have drowned near Golitha Falls close to where his memorial stone is sited. Almost nothing is known of his life and as the last of the line, he may have been without issue.
Liskerryth (now Liskeard) literally means ‘Court of Stags’. Hence the centrality of the deer hunt in this story. Neot’s legend not only includes him famously rescuing a stag from the hunt, but also his ecological sensitivity to take only one fish from the well and always leave others behind. From the Vita Sancti Neoti (The Life of Saint Neot) comes this quotation: ‘How agreeable is that humble poverty, content always with its own resources…’ I’ve updated the idea influenced by Oliver James’ book ‘Affluenza’ which is where I first really encountered the theme of taking what one needs, not what one wants.
Did St Neot have a daughter?
The character Lethelt (indeed, the whole of A Daughter’s Tale) is entirely made up. There is no evidence that Neot had a daughter, nor for that matter that he didn’t. I ‘created’ her for reasons of plot and because I have encountered something of a theme in other religious figures. Buddha left a wife and child in order to find enlightenment; St Augustine had a mistress and child and is famously remembered for his invocation to the Lord to give him continence and chastity - but not yet (though he said it in Latin which had more of a ring to it -da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo).
King Aethelwulf, Queen Judith and Prince Aethelbald
King Aethelwulf (Alfred’s father) had a long marriage which resulted in five sons and a daughter. When widowed, he married the thirteen year old Judith. Four of his sons became King, his second and rebellious son Aethelbald (the bold) taking Judith, his step-mother, as his bride and queen, possibly before his father’s death. Judith went on to marry, for a third and last time, a Flemish nobleman by whom she had two sons. She was dead at twenty seven.
Alfred - the future king of all England - was Aethelwulf’s youngest son.
An early form of chess arrived in Western Europe via Muslim traders in the 9th century. It would have been a very modern game in the context of this drama.