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Fair Field review at Shoreditch Town Hall, London – ‘an ambitious reworking’

Scene from Fair Field at Shoreditch Town Hall, London Scene from Fair Field at Shoreditch Town Hall, London

Re-imagining the allegorical world of a 14th-century epic poem for a modern audience is no mean feat, but Penned in the Margins’ Fair Field attempts it with an ambitious promenade performance of Piers Plowman staged in five parts. First performed as part of the Ledbury Poetry Festival, it now moves to bustling Shoreditch in east London – these first two parts on Friday, with the other three on Saturday.

Will’s Vision by Tom Chivers and Steve Ely begins on the steps of Shoreditch Church. As a crackling radio broadcasts a news report about unrest across the land, Will (Robin Berry) stumbles from his tent in bleary-eyed contemplation of the assembled crowd. Cheery pie-seller Michael Oku banters with the audience, before a group of medieval musicians leads us on to the street with bell-ringing and chanting, past bemused hipsters and Friday-night revellers, into the rather quieter churchyard, where we form a “fair field full of folk”.

Here, members of the audience are identified as some of the most nefarious in society, including silver-tongued lawyers and pardoners offering quick absolution in exchange for a fee. The king appears as a cat, with his subjects as rodents, before a series of characters emerge: Holy Church with a sermon about the Tower of Truth; then the gloriously spivvy False Faithless (Michael Wagg) and apparently naive Lady Mede (Catherine Cusack), whose name, we are told, means ‘money’. As the couple announce their upcoming wedding, the moralistic thrust of the piece becomes clear: in a corrupt world, the fickle and feckless are always attracted to filthy lucre, a message that rings just as true today.

For The Marriage of Lady Mede by Annette Brook, the audience is seated in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as guests at the “wedding of the century”. As Oku’s DJ Reason puts on a few blingtastic tunes, False greets the guests before Lady Mede arrives with £50 notes dripping from her dress and we all sing along to Abba’s Money, Money, Money. Just before the weddings vows, Conscience (Lateisha Davine Lovelace-Hanson) interrupts proceedings to cry foul and False makes a sharp exit.

The impassioned argument that follows forms the dramatic heart of the piece as Conscience powerfully contends that money can only be a corrupting force. Reason acts as arbiter in the debate, in which Cusack’s Lady Mede compellingly counters that money is the facilitator of good works rather than the source of evil.

With its blend of vaudeville and moral messages, Fair Field makes a strong case for the relevance of a 600-year-old poem today. Though using modern prose at the expense of sonorously alliterative Middle English – and in a rather different setting from the Malvern Hills – this ambitious production draws striking parallels across the centuries.

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Entertainingly reworked medieval allegory, which sometimes sacrifices poetry for narrative clarity