On Saturday we ran a new larp concept that I’ve developed with my friend Christian Thompson, around the idea of ‘exquisite dinners for those about to die’. This one was held in Beziers in 1209, on St Mary Magadelene’s Eve, the day before the first great massacre of the Cathars. It feels too early to write about the larp itself as a larpwright – this being the first that I’ve properly created from start to finish – and so I want to talk about the story of my character Bernard.
We used a Tarot deck to help write the characters and Bernard was the Eight of Pentacles – hard working, cautious, methodical. He was a 41 year old Jewish man in the employ of Alphonse, a 53 year old Cathar trader. Bernard’s traumatic childhood as a refugee from Italy, who then lost his family to plague aged 14, had left him deeply cautious by nature, focused on security above all.
In the past week Bernard and Alphonse had been forced to flee their home town of Lodeve, now occupied by the invading army. As a wealthy Cathar, Alphonse had lost everything and was in danger of complete collapse. Bernard, ironically, had invested elsewhere and was the owner of a farm, secure in the mountains.
En route to Beziers, where Alphonse’s friend and fellow Cathar trader Guilleme would offer shelter, they met with the Aragonese troubadour Lucie, who led us to the woodland house of Sophie, a midwife and sage femme. Alphonse requested a Tarot reading from Sophie, and she prophesied Death.
This was, in hindsight, the point at which Alphonse set his course.
Bernard was made uncomfortable by these two improbable travelling companions, but tolerated them. At dinner he was pleased to see Marc, the Jewish City Clerk of Beziers, but troubled by what he saw in Raymond, the knight chiefly responsible for the city’s defence. The none too bright warrior was feeling divided loyalties, uncertain whether to defend the city (and his young Cathar wife Marie) or to assist the Catholic armies outside the gates.
It was beginning to dawn on Bernard that he had forgotten to live a life. And as he woke up (oddly moved by Lucie’s song, and the poem recited by Jacques) he began to wonder what he had missed. Above all he was moved by great tenderness for Alphonse, his great friend and benefactor.
Then, half an hour before the end, Death arrived. I won’t say too much about it, but everyone experienced this moment as traumatic and shocking.
Here I need to say something about another device we used in the workshop, which was a deck of Spirit Animal cards. All the players picked one just before the larp, and there were many gasps of recognition. The prophetess Sophie, for example, got the Giraffe (Foresight). It was suggested that these cards might become significant to their characters in the final act. Bernard chose the Bear (Strength): “Stand Your Ground”. Alphonse, the Raccoon (Resourcefulness): “You have everything you need”.
The truth that was staring both Alphonse and Bernard in the face was that they loved each other – and this was true for Bernard, at least, in an erotic sense – and that they could probably choose a life together in security and relative wellbeing on Bernard’s mountain homestead. But Bernard had no words for this, or none that Alphonse could hear. Alphonse, overwhelmed by the loss of everything he owned, chose to undergo the Rite of Consolation, which meant he would be henceforth a member of the Cathar Perfect – celibate, austere and dedicated to God. It also meant that he would probably be signing his own death warrant.
Bernard wept for this, and then dedicated himself to the defence of Beziers, inspired by Raymond’s decision to fight. The next day Bernard would die, along with everyone else in Beziers …
… unless of course by Raymond’s change of heart we had created a counterfactual history, in which the city repelled the Crusaders?
It was interesting for me to play a gay character, however repressed and closeted. Homosexuality isn’t something for me in real life, and so the larp was an opportunity to explore that possibility in some sense. I was lucky to have in Alphonse’s player someone who was willing to go there with me. More resonant was Alphonse’s age, 41 – perhaps the age that I was when I had a somewhat similar realisation that I needed to wake up and live more fully.
I’m grateful that I had more time than he.