For the last few months, I’ve been collaborating with a brilliant spoken word artist from Cornwall, whose work is timeless, full of rage, rhyme and satire. Their name is Heldris, and we have to work remotely because they’ve been dead for 700 years.
Roman de Silence is Heldris’ epic 13th Century adventure which was lost until 1911, and then quickly silenced again, probably because of its incendiary nature.
It tells how Silence – a descendent of King Arthur who uses s/he pronouns interchangeably – must fight for the right to inherit land (and therefore have any power in those times) and to be their true self.
I caught up with Heldris, who asked me a few questions about our collaboration.
Rachel Rose Reid’s interview with Heldris
Heldris: What are your top 3 tips for working from a source as old as mine?
1) Read it once, then read it again , often with a pencil and notebook. Write
every time you feel something inside you respond. Pause the reading to
explore what has moved you, what was familiar, what was new, what was visceral. What did it remind you of in your own life.
2) Research the whole multi-sensory world of the story. Speak to experts. Listen to music, eat food, shut your eyes and imagine the landscape these people lived in – both the writer, and their characters.
3) Become a detective Don’t settle for stereotypes just because “that’s how it was back then”. Ask yourself “what would lead someone to behave in this way?”, “What has happened to a culture whereby such and such event seems normal to them?”.
Heldris: Why are you working with me? Why aren’t you telling a brand new story?
RRR: Good question. I mean, why do people repeat Shakespeare so often?
RRR: Ah yes, he’s not going to be born for another couple of hundred years.
Well, for me, there’s a sort of relief in finding that challenges I have been contending with, were being wrestled with by you, seven hundred years earlier; as we reach out to each other across time, I gain new perspectives, a sense of solidarity, a sense of this being part of a journey. When we experience struggles in life we can feel as though we’re alone, yet here in this bound vellum book you are genuinely tackling gender norms, rape culture, capitalist greed, women’s rights, and queer oppression.
Heldris: Are those still not sorted?
RRR: Next question.
Heldris: Are you telling my story as I wrote it?
RRR: No. Firstly, your voice is your own, I’m writing through mine. Secondly, you wrote it in Old French.
Heldris: Don’t they still speak French in court?
RRR: No, they speak a kind of posh English.
Heldris: Ha! Common English? Posh? Seriously?
RRR: Thirdly, you wrote it in rhyming couplets.
Heldris: That’s a memory aide and it’s great for rhythm.
RRR: It feels pretty cheesy these days…
Heldris: What else are you changing?
RRR: Our cultural references are totally different – If I were to just tell the story as it is I would alienate everyone. It would be a museum piece.
I could just cut everything that’s confusing, but then I’d be stripping the complexities and depth from your story. So I work out how we 21st century people can drop into this story. There are not many writers from your time that I’d feel able to work with, but you’re a rebel against archaic prejudices, so we make a good team.
Then, some of your figures of power have been diluted across the centuries. For example, the way that knights and kings have become fairytale clichés, or dragons and sorcerers have become the realm of fantasy films.
Heldris: Fantasy what?
RRR: But knights are just a regular every day thing to you, and dragons and magic are a theme you use to explore the idea of how we deal with a Universe that’s beyond anyone else’s control. My work with you is to pull these things out of cliché and make them feel real, so we can experience them fully.
Heldris: Have you kept anything the same?
RRR: There are so many ways in which you relate with your audience that I recognise from storytellers and performance poets I know and love. You directly chat with us. Ask us questions – and can probably deal with back-chat. Go off on long arrogant waffles that turn out to be self-aware self-deprecating jokes. You take us high on humour before crashing us into the rocks of grief. Use rhythm, language, and nothing more than your words and body in the space to bring us the courage to face a difficult World – a World that doesn’t seem so long ago after all.
Heldris: Are you performing it for hours on end in the Great Halls as I once did?
RRR: I’ve broken it into a couple of acts for now. Each one a great adventure initself. The remaining dates of this first tour are 11 July (Nottingham) 18 July (Bristol), and 21 & 22 July (Festival at the Edge, Shropshire).
In September we’ll be putting the whole epic together as part of an overnight experience in Devon.
Heldris: In a hall though? With mead?
RRR: More like a community space, with beer.