The Barmy Twelfth Night Bacchanal That Happens On Bankside Every January

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Last Updated 20 December 2023

The Barmy Twelfth Night Bacchanal That Happens On Bankside Every January
A man dressed from head to toe in foliage, clutching two woven crowns
David Risley has played the part of The Holly Man for three decades. © Sas Astro

While some of us spend the nascent days of the new year browsing the internet for shirts and coats in the January sales, David Risley has an entirely different way of putting together a winter wardrobe.

For almost 30 years, he has been out combing the woodland and urban green areas for foliage. From this, he crafts a vegetative gown of of pine, ivy and holly that would make Lady Gaga foliage-green with envy.

A group of actors perform a play in the open, dressed in bright costumes
The eccentric Mummers' play includes characters called Turkey Sniper, Clever Legs, and the Old 'Oss. © Sas Astro

"I often get asked, 'who makes your costume?'" Risley tells us, "I made it all. Whatever is seasonal is used. I never know how it will come together, but it does and when I see the smile of so many faces as they first see me, I know something is right. That said, it is often easier just to say to people who ask, "Well it sort of grows on me!" with a wink.

There is a point to all this dressing up: Risley is taking up the guise of 'The Holly Man', leading the festivities outside the Globe Theatre, held on the closest weekend to Twelfth Night, by a group of performers called The Lion's Part.

A bearded man dressed in red, a bit like Santa, performs in an outdoor play
The palooza takes place on Sunday 8 January 2023. © Sas Astro

Stirring together ancient Midwinter seasonal customs with folklore and contemporary festivity, this Twelfth Night bacchanal is a cheek-warmingly jovial — if bewildering — affair. Risley's Holly Man — a take on the Green Man, that legendary figure who symbolises new growth, and adorns a slew of pub signs — is piped across the Millennium Bridge (accompanied by Beelzebub), then leads a cheery bout of wassailing — an ancient custom, in which mulled cider is drank, and a fruitful spring harvest is toasted. Wassail means "be in good health".

A woman in a bonnet covered in foliage
© Sas Astro

Traditionally in a wassailing ceremony, the cider is poured on the roots of an orchard tree, but in this urban version of the event, the theatre gates are wetted with it instead.

"My role is tough to explain, and it continues to evolve," says Risley, "It is just to be a presence, a sort of earth bound god. A presence that has come from nature and will dissolve back into the nature."

A woman is coronated with a wicker crown
© Sas Astro

A 'Mummers Play' is then performed on the Bankside Jetty; this boisterous show — with characters known as 'Turkey Sniper', 'Clever Legs' and the 'Old 'Oss' — may look like an unscripted episode of The Mighty Boosh, but is in fact a traditional 'freestyle' take on the story of St. George and the Dragon; and apparently such plays have been performed since the Crusades.

Masked musicians parade along Bankside
© Sas Astro

Audience participation is encouraged throughout, including the offer of cakes: find a bean or a pea in your slice, and suddenly you'll find yourself being coronated with a wicker crown, as either King Bean or Queen Pea, and paraded towards Soap Yard in Borough Yards (up until 2023, it was the George Inn, but the pub has decided it no longer wants to host).

Here, there is further hijinks, in the form of storytelling and dancing — fulled by mulled wine (although children are welcome to partake in the whole event). The whole thing makes morris dancing look positively sombre, and should be enough to startle the post-Christmas melancholy out of anyone. It's incredibly good fun.

The Holly Man stands by the theatre gates
Divid Risley leads the wassailing, which involves chucking cider on the gates of the Globe Theatre. © Sas Astro

Risley jocosely describes himself as first being "dragooned into the role" of the Holly Man some 30 years ago, when the artistic director, Sonia Ritter suddenly realised she'd forgotten to cast a Green Man. "I was there helping with props and tech," says Risley, "when a voice came across the room, 'Can't David do it? He's tall.'"

Since his pragmatic crowning, Risley has cherished the role. "This is folk theatre, theatre of the people," he says, "Everyone joins in if they feel they can dance and sing."

A parade of colourfully dressed musicians
The revellers process to Soap Yard, where there is further hijinks, in the form of storytelling and dancing. © Sas Astro

The celebrations mean a lot to other people too. Risley remembers back when he was playing the Holly Man in the early days, after doing his final wassail, a small lady who had a clubfoot and walked with a painful looking gait approached him with a pint of beer, and said, 'I think you'll be ready for this now'. "She made that her role for the best part of 12 years," says Risley, "I heard that little voice and a pint coming my way. I would often enquire about her, she would just look me up and down and say, 'Oh I'm not anyone but you are'.

A man sits by the fire and tells stories
The party continues with dancing and storytelling. © Sas Astro

"After she moved to Glasgow, I never heard anymore of her but often remember the joy she took in her role."

Fittingly, as the figure who leads the wassailing, Risley has segued into a cider drinker — so if you wanted to buy him a pint, now you know what he's having.

The 2024 Twelfth Night celebrations take place on Bankside, outside the Globe Theatre, on Sunday 7 January. The procession then continues to Soap Yard, in Borough Yards, for further merriment into the afternoon.