MORALITY PLAY by Barry Unsworth (Review)

As is so often the case with Barry Unsworth’s novels, the reader finds himself living the life of an outsider, in this case a whole gallery of typically medieval outsiders: a young priest on the road, outside his diocese and therefore outside the law; a troupe of impoverished strolling players struggling to survive in the middle of winter; a whore,down on her luck, travelling with the players; a group of religious dissenters, the Brethren of the Spirit … And all involved in what can only be described as a very literary medieval mystery.

It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on. The first was of the man called Brendan and I saw the moment of it. I saw them gather round and crouch over him in the bitter cold, then start back to give the soul passage. It was as if they played his death for me and this was a strange thing, as they did not know I watched, and I did not then know what they were.

Thus the story opens. The young priest, Nicholas Barber, freezing cold (having lost his cloak in a narrow escape from an irate husband who returned unexpectedly) and starving hungry, happens upon a death scene being performed by a company of players; only the death is real and because of the death the players are one man short: Nicholas is co-opted.

He travels north towards Durham with them (they have been ordered to perform at Durham Castle on Christmas Day) but before they can get there they are caught up in the death of a child – a boy, Thomas Wells – and the story of the young woman accused of murdering him.

It is not, though, your typical “medieval mystery”. The players simply need money to continue their journey north and the only way they can lay hands on any is to perform a play that will attract an audience. Martin, their leader, decides to perform a “true play”, the play of this local murder; but to perform a play based on such a thing is quite unheard of. “Who plays things that are done in the world?” demands one of the shocked players when Martin suggests it.

Then, when they perform it, they find it is false: it does not work.

The whole first half of the book builds up to the performance of the first Play of Thomas Wells (which they subsequently rename The False Play of Thomas Wells) and its follow-up, The True Play of Thomas Wells; the second half of the book is the traumatic if not finally tragic sequel to these performances.

As a player, Nicholas sees everything, from medieval life in the raw –

I saw the beggar who had come to our fire and spoken of lost children. An egg had fallen and smashed below the stall, where the snow was trodden. The yolk of the egg made a yellow smear on the snow and a raw-boned dog saw it at the same time as the beggar did and both made for it and the beggar kicked the dog, which yelped and held back but did not run, hunger making him bold. The beggar cupped his hands and scooped up the egg in the snow and took it into his mouth and ate all together, the egg and the fragments of shell and the snow

– to a great joust. Nicholas, imprisoned in a castle tower, watches the joust taking place in the lists below and realises that the knights and nobles too are performing in their own play; and later sees a dying knight, mortally wounded in the joust, with “no role left to play but this last one of dying, that comes to all.”

Fine writing and a fine story with some great characters and a vivid reconstruction of the life of those particular outsiders known as players whom we now think of as central to the culture of an age and place and people.

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THE RUBY IN HER NAVEL by Barry Unsworth (Review)

Sicily, 1149

Christians? You put yourself on a level with them, you who are of Christian birth? You call them Christians, these filthy palace Saracens that claim to be converted to our faith and secretly continue to practise their own?’
‘I have seen no evidence of this,’ I said, but he did not hear me or showed no sign of doing so.
‘Once a Saracen, always a Saracen, it is in their blood,’ he said. His eyes had a staring look now, that famished smile had gone, and with it all pretence of benevolent interest in me. He leaned forward across the table, bringing his face close to mine. ‘It is in their corrupted blood,’ he said, ‘and they will corrupt our blood with it if we allow them. […] Tell me, Thurstan, what does Christendom mean to you?’
‘It is the term we use for those regions where our Roman faith is predominant.’
‘That is all it signifies to you? This great spread of our faith no more than a matter of geography? I will tell you what Christendom is. Christendom is the universal Christian Church, the universal Christian society. Christendom is a mighty host that is destined to bring the world under its sway.’

An unusual but fascinating setting: the court of the Norman King Roger of Sicily. Following the failure of the great army of the Second Crusade at Damascus, Sicily – and the whole of southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean – seethes with unrest. Palermo, with its Muslims and Jews, its Byzantine Christians and its Roman Christians, seems a kind of melting-pot, symbolic of the rest of the region. King Roger, who has sworn to maintain equality between the races and creeds, is visibly failing to do so as his Norman courtiers seize more and more power and property for themselves at the expense of the rest.

In the middle of all this, a young Anglo-Norman called Thurstan Beauchamp works under a Muslim, Yusuf, the minister responsible for the Diwan al-tahqiq al-ma’mur, the Diwan of Control (or Diwan of Secrets) – and dreams of the knighthood and the life that should have been his, would have been his if his father had not entered a Cistercian monastery and given all his lands and property to the Cistercian Order, thereby leaving his son unable to pursue his training. Now, under Yusuf, Thurstan is officially responsible for recruiting and organising entertainers (dancers, singers) for the royal court, but in fact much of his work is on the secret side, carrying out confidential missions for Yusuf.

All this comes together as he sets out for Bari (a port on the east coast of Italy) to meet a Serbian emissary and deliver a message, but, while there, he falls under the spell of a penniless gypsy dancer, Nesrin, (who, after the start given to her by Thurstan in Palermo, becomes famous throughout the courts of Europe – she’s the one who, later, has a ruby in her navel “that glowed as she danced”). And then, quite by chance, he meets his childhood sweetheart, Lady Alicia, now a young widow and recently returned from Jerusalem.

A love story, yes. But Thurstan has already been offered a substantial bribe if he will accuse Yusuf of attempting to make him a convert to Islam, and thus bring about Yusuf’s downfall. He, of course, refused. But when Alicia is taken prisoner, and her release – her very life – depends on Thurstan bearing false witness against Yusuf, his long-time friend and mentor – what is he to do? Is honour the most important thing for him? And the consolation of Nesrin the dancer? Or should he accept the knighthood and land he is offered, and the hand of Alicia?

A marvellous story, and beautifully written, as one would expect from Barry Unsworth, thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize and once the winner. But don’t expect another Morality Play: Barry Unsworth is not one to repeat himself, and this book, its setting and its hero are as different as A Tale of Two Cities is from Hard Times.