Mr Baker’s Dozen performs a Mummers’ Play every year on the Sunday nearest St George’s Day, and at a few other occasions during the year, when we can be bothering to carry swords, armour, horses, crowns, brooms, funnels, syringes, scimitars, coconuts, ketchup etc.
The Mummers’ Play is desperately traditional, written as it was all of fifteen years ago. There are proper bona fide references to a Mummers’ Play being performed on the Isle of Wight in the past, by “The Wight Boys.” However, we decided to write our own, and borrowed library books from the length and breadth of the land, read every single play therein, noted down all the best bits, and made up our own amalgated version. Over the years, it has evolved greatly, as such things always do. Mummers’ Plays were the pantomime of their day, with current heroes and villains making an appearance (Nelson and Napoleon, for example), or local place-names and in-jokes put into the text.
Most traditional Mummers’ Plays have a very similar content, and certain turns of phrases crop up in versions all over the country. In brief, the play centres around a fight between St George (or King George) and a villain, called The Turkish Knight (or Turkey Snipe!), Bold Slasher, or a variety of other names. Someone dies. Oh no! Father Christmas usually makes an appearance (though not in our version, since we don’t perform it at Christmas) and calls for a Doctor, whereupon a dodgy doctor comes in and brings the dead chap back to life. Woo-hoo! There is then a song, and the obligatory appeal for money.
The Baker’s Dozen version is prefaced (sometimes) by a chanting song, in which we thump spoons and saucepans, make a lot of noise, and introduce all the characters. (“In comes George with a clatter! See those storm clouds scatter!”) Just in case the audience isn’t fully attentive yet, they then get shouted at until they shut up – “Room! Room! Give us room! Give us room to rhyme!”
Then St George appears in valiant fashion – “In come I, bold St George, with shining armour bright!” – and proceeds to bore the audience with a lengthy (and not very modest) account of all his deeds. Yes, he killed a dragon. He also, for some reason, rescued a princess, and then “through her tender heart I ran my naked spear.” We’re not quite sure about that bit… Oh yes, and anyone not acting can heckle freely, and often does. We give St George grief over this bit.
Anyway… “Show me the man who dares against me stand! I’ll cut him down with my courageous hand!” shouts St George. At this point, some not-entirely-traditional characters appear (inserted for the thoroughly prosaic reason that we had more people than parts, so had to write some more parts.) Bold Slasher is a little boy, pushed on by his mother, Bold Mother (“Go on! Fight the nice man!”) However, he flees as soon as St George looks at him. Then comes Sir Robin, a Valiant Soldier, who lasts a few rounds, then runs away. (And, no, Monty Python was not an inspiration. Honest!)
Then we have the real business. In comes the Turkish Knight. “I am the man who dares to challenge thee!” His head is made of iron, his body of steel… He will turn St George into mince pies hot, mince pies cold… They fight. They fight. They fight… and in the end, the Turkish Knight lies dead on the ground.
But before St George can bask in his victory, in comes the Mother from Hell, the Queen of Egypt. (Mummers’ Plays were always all-male traditions, but we’ve ignored that fact.) “Oh George! Oh George! What have you done? You’ve gone and slain my only son. At this point, in comes a doctor (or sometimes a vet, depending on the actor’s mood), accompanied by Jack Vinney, his surly and disobedient servant. (“Hold the horse.” “Hold it yourself!”) The doctor boasts of his skills in healing, and also of his great travels – “to Ireland, Italy, France and Spain. I went to the mainland once. I won’t go there again!”
The Queen offers the doctor a hundred thousand pounds, and the doctor agrees to try to cure the dead man. “The big syringe” fails, but enter a miracle – Ventnor Beer. The Turkish Knight is revived with a pint of beer, and they all live happily ever after…
Except that children in the audience wanted a dragon, so we put one in. As soon as the Knight and Queen have left, in runs a damsel in distress, pursued by dragon. “I need a strong and handsome man!” she cries. Unfortunately, she has to make do with George. George deals with the dragon, and then disappears hand in hand with the grateful damsel.
All the assembly now sings an adaptation of the Pace-egging song – “Here’s one, two, three, jolly lads all of one mind; we have all come a mumming and we hope you’ll prove kind.” The purpose of the song is to introduce a few extra characters, like Johnny Jack, Beelzebub and Little Devil Doubt, who all dance their bit, and the collect money from the audience.
After that, we start to sing Happy Birthday to St George, before it is pointed out that George in fact died on St George’s Day. No-one lets us kill him, so, failing that, we perform our dance, The Shaking of the Sheets