Hildegard von Bingen, VAULT Festival

by Laura Kressly

Saint Hildegard von Bingen was a prolific polymath – a theologian who advised many religious higher-ups in the Catholic church, a composer, a writer of scientific and rhetorical works, a linguist, an abbess and a religious visionary. Though she lived over a millenium ago in the late 1000s and early 1100s and was – of course – largely at the whims of the men around her, she strove for more independence for herself and her nuns so they could worship how they best saw fit. A multigenerational ensemble use text, music and physical theatre to focus on this part of her life, positioning her as a liberating protofeminist in a strikingly beautiful, highly sensory piece.

Three women work as one to capture numerous moments from Hildegard’s life. We see her as a child, then as woman revelling in her religious visions, then the ecstasy she experiences celebrating and honouring God with her sisters when she is elderly. She also regularly encounters resistance from men who oppose her quest for freedom. Batting away their criticism with grace and the conviction of her faith, it is clear she was an extraordinary person unafraid to advocate for her and her nun’s needs in a time that did not see women has whole, autonomous beings.

The ensemble are more like a Greek chorus in their unity and precision, and telling the story as a collective gives it more power given the times Hildegard lived in and the particulars of monastic life. They effectively use a mix of lyrical text, movement and interactions with the otherwise pedestrian sheets of gauze hanging from the ceiling. When moved and wrapped around the performers’ bodies, the shimmering fabric in turn becomes water, jewels and a wall, amongst other things. It’s rather magical, and a fitting homage to a woman of such achievement, even though her more academic pursuits are left out of this production.

Dramaturgically, there are a couple of nods to Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia – Hildegard may will not be widely known in British culture, and whilst there is a reasonable amount of information available about her life, this immensely personal depiction of her life is probably quite speculative. She is also played by three actors, a device Lloyd Malcolm used to show Emilia at various stages of her life and a physical manifestation of the multitudes women contain. The importance of her faith and visions, and the way these motivate also parallels Joan of Arc stories. Charlie Josephine’s recent I, Joan echoes here, particularly in the purity and strength of belief. As much as the concept of the show is stunning and slick, sharing Hildegard’s story on stage is a vital contribution to otherwise-ignored historical women.

Hildegard von Bingen runs through 26 February.

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