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Julian celebrated

24 November 2017

Eve Stebbing went to Norwich Cathedral’s Hostry Festival

LAST month’s Hostry Festival at Norwich Cathedral brought its audiences a programme of contrasts. French Existentialists rubbed shoulders with medieval religious thinkers; Romantics appeared alongside the most stringent of realists.

Not least in the line-up of exciting works on offer was a new performance about the anchoress Julian of Norwich. Her series of visions, seen during a near-death experience in 1373, have caught the imagination from age to age, winding their way into local folklore and providing an enduring source of contemplation to the faithful.

Many aspects of this recluse’s life would make a play, including her remarkable achievement in setting down her religious experiences at all, given the age of political upheaval in which she lived. But it is her visions, the 16 revelations, that form the central matter of the piece.

The performance began with a description of the mystic lying in bed, surrounded by those who had come to perform her last rites. The storytellers related her visions with gentle diligence. The passion of her encounter with Christ on the Cross was especially moving.

Wonderful creative work inspired by the astonishing “shewings” abounded on stage. Sister Jo Chambers SND spent a year on the pictures that appeared above the action (one is shown); Jo Collins had composed a series of songs; and Jessica Wall had choreographed a suite of dances. All these disparate endeavours were given coherence by Frances Wall’s clever narrative, which edited everything together in a meaningful way.

The busy and vibrant texture of the production was reminiscent of the dense fabric of a medieval psalter. With so much illustration, however, aspects of the performance inevitably spilt over into marginalia. There was great generosity in this highly decorative approach, and it certainly blew away any obscurity in the medieval text. But it was at variance with the plain dealing of Julian, a woman who described herself as “a simple creature”.

Still, the extraordinary spiritual breakthrough of this humble medieval woman came across, as fresh as a Norfolk daisy. It really is incredible how directly her words still speak to us, conveying their strong sense of comfort and hope: “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” — a message of assurance that is much needed in our uncertain age.

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