Englishness, Holy Church and the Harrowing of Hell – Re-writing Piers Plowman for the stage

Banner photograph: Oli Bac

had a pre-existing love for Piers Plowman, and I knew – and trusted! – Tom, so I knew that whatever he was doing would be good! The project has really sucked me in. I’m not a specialist in Middle English history or language, but when I was researching my two books, Oswald’s Book of Hours and Engaland, I went back into Old and Middle English. I did a review, of sorts, of the major works, and it was then that I encountered Piers for the first time.

The thing that struck me then, which still strikes me now, is the metaphor of the “fair field”, and that it can be a kind of utopian symbol of a socially, ecologically and economically just society. Also, its Englishness attracted me. It’s an Englishness without Farage or Empire or horrible things that are perhaps now connected the Englishness.

There are many contemporary parallels to be found in the poem, about social justice and equity, and the Lady Mede stuff about chasing money and how money corrupts society. I can definitely see those in there. What also interested me was the kind of technical division in the original text between Lucifer and Satan. Lucifer may well have some positives to him, in that he’s a Prometheus character, struggling against authority and bringing fire to the common person. I quite liked that, this idea that Lucifer helps the ordinary person to seize power from the ruling class, and attempt to build a fair field, and I think that Wat Tyler and John Ball were kind of Lucifer figures in the Peasants’ Revolt. That’s what I’ve attempted to write in my piece.

The Death of Wat Tyler at the hands of Walworth, Mayor of London with the young Richard II looking on, c.1385-1400.

I’ve written about Will’s encounter with Holy Church. I saw Holy Church as someone who seems to be on the side of right and justice and kindness, but who in reality is peddling a different view of the world. Charity is all well and good, but it only goes to the deserving poor. The so-called undeserving poor are kicked into touch by this figure. So I saw Holy Church as a composite of powerful female figures; Princess Diana, Mother Theresa, the Virgin Mary, Angela Merkel, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, even Theresa May, are all wrapped up in this figure, with a bit of Beyonce and Lady Gaga. She’s a propagandist figure who would kind of seduce a naïve young person. In reality, she’s basically selling them the free market, plutocracy and globalisation. I’ve re-written it a bit since then, because the characterisation of Will didn’t quite fit this narrative. Will needed to be more naïve and not able to make this kind of analysis.

I’ve also done the “Harrowing of Hell” final section, bringing out the distinction between Satan and Lucifer. Satan has jailed Lucifer, in a Trump-esque plutocratic gesture. He’s a plausible establishment figure, but one who is all about accruing wealth and power for himself. Lucifer has been bound in hell, and when people are liberated from hell then Lucifer is liberated, too. It was quite a secular vision to start with, and again I’ve moderated it slightly to fit within the bigger piece.

Steve Ely has co-written the opening and closing moments of Fair Field, ‘Will’s Vision’ and ‘The Tower of Truth’. To find out more and buy tickets for these and the other three moments in Ledbury & London visit our Live Shows page.

Steve Ely is a poet from the West Riding of Yorkshire. His book of poems, Oswald’s Book of Hours, is published by Smokestack and was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2013 and the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry in 2014. Englaland, his second book of poems, was published in April, 2015, also by Smokestack. He is also the author of a novel, Ratmen, and a biographical work: Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made In Mexborough.