The Bar Man, by Jeff Hoyle, April 26, 2019
The discussion may continue as to whether Shakespeare made more appearances in the theatre at St George’s Guildhall than Nelson did at the quayside that is apparently to bear his name – but we would do well to remember that they were not the first sea captain or playwright that existed.
Captain Vancouver had been dead for seven years by the time of Nelson’s greatest victory and perhaps deserves consideration when apportioning the naming rights to our shiny new quayside development – unless, of course, we approach the issue in the same way as new football stadiums and sell the privilege.
How much for it to become the Emirates quay?
Nor did plays start with Shakespeare. There are around 35 medieval plays known, according to the wonderful Dr Kate Jewell, who presented a study day on the topic for the local WEA (Workers Education Association) recently.
Of these, more than half can be traced to East Anglia, ‘the West End of the fifteenth century’.
Stage directions, diagrams and even the remains of the performance spaces, such as that at Walsham le Willows in Suffolk, show that these were often large scale and elaborate productions, mostly with religious themes, though the favourite part for the audiences seems to have been the appearance of the stage devils, with their grotesque costumes and use of pyrotechnics.
Indeed, there is an account of one play where the company refused to allow the devil to appear until the collection from the audience had raised sufficient money.
The plays would have been part of a bigger festival, with music, dancing and ale, a cross between a village fete, beer festival and pop festival.
Events known as ‘Ales’ were a common way to raise money and Kate presented evidence of a ‘Church Ale’ which was staged to raise money to repair the roof of a local church.
A verse by Robert Reynes from the 15th century confirms this: ‘For an ale is here ordained by a comely assent, for all manner of people that appear here this day, unto holy church be increase, all that exceeds the cost of our play’.
In fact the word bridal is a corruption of Bride Ale, another event when a special brew would be created.
In East Anglia we were amongst the richest and best-connected parts of the country at this time and probably benefitted from the early introduction of hops from the low countries, making the beer more palatable.
Another rhyme from Cornwall, dating from the 16th century, suggests that not all the ale was great, and confirms my opinion of beer from that part of the country, at least until the relatively recent microbrewery renaissance.
‘Ich am a Cornish Man, ale I can brew, It will make one to cacke and also to spew, it is thick and smakey and also it is thin, It is like wash as pigs had wrestled therein’.
As well as for the visits of travelling theatre companies or one-off social or fundraising events, special ales were also created for regular occasions, such as the annual audit at the Oxford and Cambridge Colleges.
Their tenants were invited to pay their rents and attend a feast once a year and the college brewery would produce a special strong beer to be drunk on these occasions, known as Audit Ale.
With the closure of the final college brewery at the outbreak of the Second War, the brewing was contracted out and examples can still be found, such as the one brewed in Yarmouth by Lacons.
Try it, but be careful. At 8% it might bring out the devil in you.