This weekend I was able to do a thing I’d wanted to do for some years – be a beast in the Stroud Wassail’s parade. Wassailing is an activity that takes many forms around the UK, from pouring cider on the roots of apple trees to raising toasts to the cows, and wishing your neighbours good health, it has many manifestations. In Stroud, the wassail is modern, involves street dancing, mumming sides (folk theatre with death and re-birth themes) music, revels (12th night style) and Beasts.
It’s a wonderful example of living tradition. The Stroud Wassail draws on folk traditions, bringing together many different threads. It’s colourful and cheerful, and shamelessly new.
This year I was in the wonderful position of being able to take my mmumming side along – we’re also rooted in the tradition and shamelessly new. I wrote a climate crisis mumming play – which is funnier than you might assume, and revolves around the line ‘In comes I, The Sea.’ We’ve traditional characters – Beelzebub and The Doctor. We’ve fights and deaths. I replaced everyman character Jack Finny with Common Jill, because traditional plays don’t have enough women in. The Burning Executive and the Building Executive are killed by the sea and are not revived, it’s the innocent bystanders who drown and get saved.
The Stroud Wassail includes a procession, and in the procession are the beasts – mostly headdresses, some hobby horses, plenty of sackcloth, and a strange local creature who presides over the whole event. I danced (as best I could!) through the streets with a sheep’s head and my face covered, and it was lovely. There’s something really liberating about masked capering in a space that holds that for you. Where a person is welcome to be weird, where the spirit of The Lord of Misrule is with you and you’re allowed to be outrageous. There’s magic in it and absolute delight.
I used to do a lot of the creature and monster roles in my old mumming side, and I miss it. It is a wonderful thing to be a dragon, or a wild boar, or a white stag in public (I’ve done all three). I enjoyed being a sheep. It creates a bit of enchantment, and to bring that magic into a high street on a gloomy January day, and watch it affect people, is a wondrous experience. We need more of this sort of thing!