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Going native with Suffolk’s Wildman

PUBLISHED: 17:02 19 October 2017

Martin Bonger as the eponymous Wildman in Return of the Wildman which is being staged at Halesworth's Herring Festival along with performances at Orford Castle and St Peter's Church, Ipswich. Photo: Wonderful Beast

Martin Bonger as the eponymous Wildman in Return of the Wildman which is being staged at Halesworth's Herring Festival along with performances at Orford Castle and St Peter's Church, Ipswich. Photo: Wonderful Beast

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Suffolk legends and folklore always make great theatre. Wonderful Beast are staging a new production of Return of the Wildman and taking it out on tour. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to director Alys Kihl and writer Thea Smiley about this innovative play.

Martin Bonger as the eponymous Wildman in Return of the Wildman which is being staged at Halesworth's Herring Festival along with performances at Orford Castle and St Peter's Church, Ipswich. Photo: Wonderful BeastMartin Bonger as the eponymous Wildman in Return of the Wildman which is being staged at Halesworth's Herring Festival along with performances at Orford Castle and St Peter's Church, Ipswich. Photo: Wonderful Beast

The tale of the Orford Wildman is one of Suffolk’s most enduring legends. Part merman-part mystical sea creature, it was plucked from the sea during the Middle Ages, consigned to the dungeons in Orford Castle, he was then taken to a nearby monastery to be converted to Christianity before being returned to the castle.

The longevity of the legend is down to the fact that one morning the jailers came to check on their prisoner only to discover that it had escaped and it was assumed he had returned to the sea.

No-one knows who or what it was. Contemporary records tell us that this mysterious sea creature just disappeared and this sense of enigma is what fuels a legend over the years.

Legends and folk-tales is what gives a community a sense of place and a shared history. Folk tales and shared stories is what Aldeburgh-based Wonderful Beast theatre company are all about. They stage the regular story-telling Storm of Stories festival and along with community events and small rural tours centred around classic stories and shared memories.

Martin Bonger as the eponymous Wildman in Return of the Wildman which is being staged at Halesworth's Herring Festival along with performances at Orford Castle and St Peter's Church, Ipswich. Photo: Wonderful BeastMartin Bonger as the eponymous Wildman in Return of the Wildman which is being staged at Halesworth's Herring Festival along with performances at Orford Castle and St Peter's Church, Ipswich. Photo: Wonderful Beast

Return of The Wildman, by Suffolk playwright Thea Smiley, is a play with music inspired by the classic tale of the Wildman of Orford. It was originally staged as a rehearsed reading at the HighTide Festival 2015 before receiving its performance premiere at Storm of Stories 2016.

Alys Kihl, Wonderful Beast’s artistic director, said that the play had been so successful that they had been asked to revive it for Halesworth’s Herring Festival this year and wanted to give audiences another opportunity to catch up with this Suffolk legend.

“We thought staging it at the Herring Festival would be very appropriate for The Wildman as he would have eaten a fair few in his time but we also wanted to take it out to new audiences. We also wanted to stage it at Orford Castle where the story actually took place – so that will be very special.

“There’s still the cell there where he was held, so talk about site specific,” she laughs.

The Wildman will also be heading to Lowestoft, Southwold and St Peter’s Church on the Ipswich Waterfront.

The dramatic narrative is performed by actor Martin Bonger, with music played by Sylvia Hallett and traditional sea shanties performed by the Wonderful Beast Singers with voiceovers written and recorded by the children of Aldeburgh and Orford primary schools.

“We have steadily developed the show over the past couple of years and we want more people to have the opportunity to see this fabulous story. Thea Smiley has done a terrific job with the script and that this then enhanced by the music and the sea shanties. It’s a story full of character and romance which is perfectly brought to life by Martin Bonger who is living his role of the Wildman.”

Thea said that she wanted to tell the story from the Wildman’s viewpoint. “I read as much as I could about the original story and legends and then decided to make the story my own.

“With each retelling, the legend reflects the concerns of the age in which it is performed. So, with this I wanted to address how we view strangers and immigrants. Reading the original texts made me realise that Orford, along with Dunwich, were thriving ports in the 12th and 13th centuries and were the centre of extensive trading routes with Europe and further afield.

“It was also at this time that the spit at Orford started to develop. I had a feeling that the Wildman would be a part of this bustling port and perhaps had been washed overboard and then rescued from the sea.

“As you know he was tortured in the Castle because he wouldn’t talk. He was hung upside down in an attempt to make him speak and to the horror of the townspeople he showed no respect for Christianity when taken to Orford Church.

“And yet when he is taken by his captors down to the sea, when he has a chance to escape, he doesn’t. Despite the fact that he has been badly treated, has been tortured and abused he opts to return to the Castle and the reason for that is love. After six months he finally escaped and found his way back to the sea and disappeared for ever. Or did he?”

The Return of the Wildman opens on October 27 in Lowestoft and includes performances at Orford Castle on November 1&3. For full tour listing and to book tickets see wonderfulbeast.co.uk or call 01728 451408.

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