Joanna Swan as Mother Hode – photo supplied by company
This afternoon I stepped into the historic building that houses Anteros Arts Foundation on Fye Bridge Street to see a performance that took us back even further in history, over a thousand years ago. We are in the land of The Sælvatici, as yet unconquered by Æthelstan in his campaign to become the first King of all England.
The main component of this show is a powerful performance by Joanna Swan as Mother Hode. Her mother died young, her daughter being the product of a one night encounter with local semi deity Cernunnos. She is called Hode because when young she was so tiny she could fit in a hood. After her mother’s early death Hode lives wild in the Sherewood Forest, rejected by the local villagers scared of her feral ways and her slowly growing horns. All reject her save the young man Ælfric, who finds her and fathers her three children in a happy forest hideaway.
Her life started hard, but she had a period of happiness as a partner and a mother, until Ælfric dies and hardship comes home to her once again. Meanwhile Æthelstan brings his forces to subdue the forest people and the nearby Vikings.
Joanna gives us a viscerally realistic account of Hode’s life and torment in a faultless and sustained solo performance. While we are being retold a story a thousand years old many of the themes and dilemmas are just as relevant now, with questions raised about the role and power of a woman, the power of love, and hatred, the selfless devotion of a mother and the unbearable grief of loss.
Before this performance we had some songs and poems from Ash Mandrake and one half of Poetic Malevolence, Steven C Davis. The other half, Laura Jane Round, was indisposed today. The songs and poems were charming and well performed, but collectively they make for quite a long show altogether. An outside eye is needed to give some overall pace and direction and focus to the show.
Ash has a fine singing voice and gives us a range of songs from profane to surreal. Every song seems to feature a new guitar and a new hat, both of which he has crafted himself. Steven gives us some pithy poems delivered with elegance. However the afternoon is dominated by Joanna’s performance. We see her at three stages of life (as her horns grow) and while she gives us a formidable female role model you should be wary of getting your hopes up for a happy ending to her engaging tale. She describes a period of history in this country that few of us will be very familiar with, at the height of Anglo Saxon power before those pesky French invaders burst in on us. History is usually written by the winners in any conflict so this gives a refreshing (if imagined) perspective from the different end of the power spectrum.
This show is planned to tour over the next couple of years and is worth looking out for. It could do with a little trimming down overall but the poetry and songs do help to create an atmosphere for the main drama. Those old enough to remember Barsham Fayre or some of the other Albion Fairs that followed will feel at home straight away while younger audience members will soon grasp the context from the minimal set and props.
This is a show that would be well suited to a campfire gathering at a folk festival or rural retreat. If you get the chance to see Joanna’s magnificent performance as Mother Hode, don’t miss it!
© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 11 November 2023
Mother Hode and The Sælvatici is performed by Ash Mandrake, Joanna Swan, Laura Jane Round and Steven C Davis. An accompanying booklet can be found on Amazon.