Report from The Telling on the I, Spie tour

Trailer here.

 The Telling is extremely grateful to Angel Early Music for a grant which helped to make possible our new I, Spie concertplay, (where music and theatre collide). It tells the story of composer/lutenist John Dowland’s brush with the Secret Service and how he effectively managed to foil an Italian plot on the life of Queen Elizabeth I. Think Spooks, 16th Century-style!

With help from a grant from Angel Early Music and other funders and donors, we rehearsed and toured the new piece, taking  6 performances across England in October 2021. We also filmed one of the performances and edited together a film for release on Brighton Early Music Festival’s [email protected] series which is available on demand on their Facebook and Youtube channels until 31 December 2021. After that time, we hope to arrange for further screenings.   We also hope to do a further and longer tour in 2023. 

The tour saw us taking early music to places which never or rarely receive live early music performances including: Grange-over-Sands in Cumbria, Liverpool and Wolverhampton. 530 people bought tickets to see the show live, which slightly exceeded our ticket sale targets. From everything we hear from colleagues, exceeding or even achieving ticket sale targets is rarely happening across concerts and theatre post-pandemic.  So this is something of a miracle and a testament to the loyalty of our audiences and the interest in the project. The performances in Brighton and Wolverhampton sold out and in Cumbria, where we had never done anything before and where there is no regular early music touring, we attracted an audience of 90 people.  To date the film has had 515 views (145 on Youtube and 370 on Facebook).  So overall 1045 people have seen the show either live or online and we hope to build upon that with a further tour and screenings.

I, Spie was directed by Nicholas Renton (BAFTA-nominated Mrs Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, Musketeers, A Room With A View, Lewis, Silent Witness) and written by singer and playwright, Clare Norburn. The music comprised consort pieces and lute songs by Dowland, alongside Elizabethan tavern, street and courtly masque music by his contemporaries including Holborne, Campion and Ravenscroft. The line up was for 3 actors and 5 musicians:

Dominic Marsh​ as John Dowland

Danny Webb as The Man (Sir Robert Cecil / Philippes / Father Scudamore / Topliffe, the torturer)

Alice Imelda as The Woman (Maria / Future Mrs Dowland / Elizabeth I)

​Clare Norburn, soprano/tambourine

Emily Baines, recorders/bagpipes/voice

Giles Lewin, fiddle/bagpipes/voice

Alison Kinder, viols/recorders/voice

Jamie Akers, lute/cittern

Directed by Nicholas Renton

Written & produced by Clare Norburn

Lighting Designer Natalie Rowland

The concept of the show is centred around an extraordinary letter which Dowland wrote to spymaster Sir Robert Cecil in 1595.  At the time, Dowland was travelling Europe, having taken umbrage in having not secured a court post as a lutenist when one fell vacant.  Cecil had signed Dowland’s travel papers and probably told him to “keep his eyes and ears open”. So when, as a Catholic Englishman, Dowland is approached by English ex-Pats living in Florence and Rome, who are plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, Dowland dishes up the information on the plot and key players to Cecil. I, Spie imagines the gaps in what we know about Dowland‘s life at that time – what led to the moment of his writing that letter - but also what happened in the aftermath.

​Being a Catholic informant in Elizabethan England was a dangerous business – no one entirely trusted you, even if your information was helpful.  The 1580s has seen a series of Catholic plots and the terrifying threat of the Spanish Armada – and with the Queen ageing without any clear succession, by 1595 there was a febrile sense of panic and suspicion.  In that context, it is no wonder that Dowland’s letter reads like a man out of his depths: he sounds scared for his own life - and with good reason.  Catholics who informed were not always fully trusted - many ended up on the gallows.  But on the other hand, he does dish up the information and effectively foil the plot… Quite how involved in it all was he? We don’t know but the play takes over and imagines the gaps in between the information we have from Dowland’s letter.

I, Spie enabled us to do lots of new things: to develop the concertplay format further, integrating the musicians and actors more so that the actors sang in some of the livelier tavern numbers and the musicians even had a few lines.  the format provided a way into Dowland’s music and the music of his contemporaries to audiences not used to listening to early music.  But also the tour allowed us to connect relationships with our audiences in cities where we had begun to develop a relationship pre-pandemic (Liverpool and Wolverhampton) and  develop new relationships with first performances in South Cumbria and Hounslow. We have plans to return to all locations in 2022 and 2023. This is just some of the audience feedback questionnaire responses we received:

“Thank you for a truly inventive show, presented in such an original style - the first live, full Telling show I've seen, caught the last performance on Sunday, in Hounslow. The combination of drama and music - and the conscious breaking of the 'fourth wall' to involve the audience to dramatic and comic effect and allow the characters to step outside themselves and examine their own identities and the context of their actions - worked so well. The secret world of espionage in the Tudor court is a fascinating topic. And of course what a rich musical seam for you to mine! Great cast, great musicians - congratulations all round “ Audience feedback, Hounslow performance

 “I wanted to add my admiration for the talent, confidence, commitment, courage of each and every one of the artists in these challenging times.  How thankful we are to be able to enjoy such a performance. We realised how clever it is to combine the drama and music. We like early music but had we attended an evening of the pieces we heard last night, I would have been less than transfixed no matter how good the delivery.  You really brought the music to life.” Audience feedback from Cumbria

 “thank you so much for coming to Grange-over-Sands - we sometimes feel left out by touring companies.  Husband, who isn’t into early music, loved it. Excellent performances by both actors and musicians” Cumbria audience feedback

And here is a “word cloud” of words that appeared most in our audience feedback - the larger the word, the more it appeared:

In each location we developed partnerships which helped us reach local audiences - for example in Cumbria we worked with our venue, Victoria Hall in Grange-over-Sands who advised on where to advertise, as well as other classical music promoters in the area, Lake District Summer Music and Ulverston Festival who shared information about the performance with their following and we will return the favour ahead of their next performances.

We also benefitted enormously from mentoring on the Arts Council/BBC The Space’s Digital Marketing Mentoring scheme.  The Telling was the only classical music charity to be selected as one of 13 English arts organisations on: alongside Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures and Leeds City of Culture 2023!  We are just coming to the end of 3 months of advice on digital marketing which has hugely impacted on our I, Spie tour- particularly we learnt how to refine use of Facebook ads which we used to drive interest to Facebook events set up for each location on our tour. 

We also worked hard to secure local press coverage and we also Clare Norburn and Jamie Akers appeared and were interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on 18 October: BBC Radio 4 - Front Row, Arinzé Kene on playing Bob Marley; Clare Norburn sings John Dowland; the first Working Class Writers Festival  - from 12’50 in.

But it didn't all go to plan. Months and months of planning can't prepare you for a landslide on the trainline between Brighton and London! After a long delay and being propositioned on the Euston Road, three of us eventually got home at 3.45am for three hours sleep before the train journey to Wolverhampton. That was most definitely not in the schedule!

We are aware that we were one of the first small groups out there touring since the pandemic. Given we have an interesting formula for developing residencies in areas where there is little or no early music touring, we are now putting together a training session for late January to share our learning (both successes and failures) so others can benefit and explore how to tour and develop residencies themselves.

Angel Early Music’s grant made such a big difference at a vital moment in being able to complete the funding and make this project go ahead.  We are so grateful to you for being so open and flexible in arranging the payment and supporting us at such a vital time when your grant was needed the most and when our bid to the Arts council was unsuccessful for the first time.  We couldn’t have run our project without your support. 

Thank you so much for all you do to support the early music sector at such a challenging time. 

Clare Norburn, The Telling, December 2021