The Nine Lives of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Rag Morris celebrated and commemorated Isambard Kingdom Brunel's life by performing a newly written mummers' play, based on his life and work. The Nine Lives of Isambard Kingdom Brunel was performed at various Brunel-related locations around the City of Bristol on Saturday 12 September 2009.

Why write a mummers' play about Brunel?

Brunel is a local and national hero whose story has inspired thousands. Structuring the play around nine incidents in which Brunel took risks and put his life on the line introduces audiences to the range and scale of his achievements, from the Thames tunnel to the Clifton Suspension Bridge via the Great Western Railway and the great steamships. A cast of seven based on mummers' play archetypes re-enact key moments from Brunel's life using dramatic reconstructions, bad puns and rhyming couplets. Isambard was often his own worst enemy, represented by the devil on his back, Brunelzebub; but Doctor Foster, down from Gloucester, is always on hand with an unlikely cure when things go too far.

A traditional mummers' play's themes of life and death seemed a surprising and intriguing format to present Brunel's story in a fresh and original way. Brunel himself was a keen performer, conjurer and amateur actor and we hope that our performance was an appropriate way to present his fascinating story.

When was it performed?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel died on 15 September 1859. We performed the play in Bristol on Saturday 12 September 2009, only a few days before the 150th anniversary of the great engineer's death at the age of 53. This was also Bristol Doors Open day, so visited locations that were on or near the Doors Open day venues and found an audience who were already enthusiastic in finding out more about Bristol's history. We were also pleased to be included in the programme of events for the Bristol Poetry Festival.

Where did we perform the play?

Free performances took place across the city on Bristol Doors Open Day, Saturday 12 September 2009

* 10:00 Sion Hill Lookout, near Clifton Suspension Bridge
* 11:30 The Underfall Yard, Cumberland Road
* 13:30 Brunel's SS Great Britain performance area, Great Western Dockyard
* 14:30 Queen Square
* 15:30 Brunel's Old Station Passenger Shed, Temple Meads

These locations were close to Doors Open Day venues, including Clifton Suspension Bridge, Clifton Rocks Railway, the Underfall Yard, Spike Island, Bristol Old Vic and Temple Meads.

There was one final performance on Tuesday 15th September 2009

* 19:00 Explore@Bristol

This was followed by a Science Café discussion in Explore@Bristol entitled 'When Engineers were Heroes', where you could find out more about the changing fortunes of Brunel and other engineers with Christine MacLeod, professor of history at the University of Bristol and author of Heroes of Invention (2007).

Each performance lasted about 30 minutes and concluded with the cast performing a Morris dance, passing the top hats round and then moving on to the next venue.

Visit Gavins Flickr albums to see some images and video excerpts of the play.

2011 Revival

For the 2011 May Day weekend the Brunel play was revived, with minor changes, for three performances on Saturday 30th April. The play returned for a repeat performance at the SS Great Britain, followed by a second outside the L-shed on the dockside, with a final performance on the main stage of the Bristol Folk Festival that was very well received.

Further performances of the Brunel play were shown as part of the Rag 30th anniversary weekend celebrations and at the first annual Mummers' Unconvention in Bath.

Mummers' Unconvention in Bath

In the city of Bath, between Thursday 17th and Sunday 20th November 2011, a host of mummers and other folk play enthusiasts from across the country and indeed the world gathered together for the first ever International Mummers Unconvention.

The weekend featured a range of events, from free public performances on the streets of Bath; to a mummers academy, featuring workshops on mumming, sword-fighting and vocal projection; a chance to create and perform in a mummers play in a day; a masterclass looking at the mysterious links between the mummers play and the Commedia Dell’ Arte; a symposium for folk play practitioners, researchers and enthusiasts at the Bath Spa University; and evening concerts, revels and feasts.

To find out more about the 2011 UnConvention and future events visit:

Rag Morris Mummers headed down the Great Western Railway from Temple Meads to Bath Spa to perform their acclaimed play "The Nine Lives of Isambard Kingdom Brunel", the first public performances outside of Bristol!

The play was performed at the Mummers UnPlugged concert on the evening of Thursday 17th, which also includes a talk from renowned folklore researcher Doc Rowe and a traditional performance from the Marshfield Paper Boys. On Saturday 19th November the Brunel Play took it's place alongside free performances from national and international mummers around the streets of Bath. Rag Morris mummers performed at: 10.30 North Parade (Near the Huntsman pub), 11.10 Bath Abbey Churchyard (Near the West Door) and 14.00 Old Bond St (North end). We had a lot of really positive feedback about the Brunel play from mummers' play experts, other performers and the general public, which was very heartening.

The UnConvention Symposium on Friday 18th November with the overall theme of "Aspects of Performance" included a panel on Contemporary Mumming, featuring an illustrated talk on the Brunel Play by Rag Morris Mummers playwright Gavin Skinner.

Photo's from across the event, including some great shots of the Rag Morris Mummers performances can be seen here.

For further information about Rag Morris or the plays, contact and/or follow progress via Gavin's Twitter blog.

Bristol Suspender Bridge by Marc Vyvyan-Jones

Brunel's design for a 'Suspender Bridge' (1829) thrilled Bristolians with its daring materials and revealing technology. However he died before its completion and pious Victorians altered his designs.