Louis de Bernieres and the Antonius Players

Allan Preston goes medieval in the Spiegeltent

‘Thank you for coming through the downpour. We were expecting 8 people. In fact, we were hoping for 8!’ Louis De Bernières shakes off a miserable Belfast afternoon in a typically self-deprecating style, to entertain an 80-strong crowd with a selection of medieval music, poetry and bad jokes.

In the Spiegeltent, which combines elements of a circus with those of a café, De Bernières is joined by the Antonius Players, on flutes and keyboard. They keep a running joke of the groups' appeal, ‘Louis has written one good book,’ says German flautist and keyboardist Ilone Antonius Jones, to a smiling audience. ‘So he has a lot of time for this.’

While De Bernières is better known as the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, he is an impressively accomplished musician. Behind him sit a small army of instruments including the mandolin, lute, guitar, saxophone... and a small stringed instrument called a Charango, made out of an Armadillo shell. ‘It's one of the great ironies,' he says, 'that only non-musicians can afford the best instruments.’

Beginning with a lively ‘Chirping of the Nightingale’, the music continues with a selection of songs ranging from Renaissance and Baroque periods to folk music. At times De Bernières is content to sit and listen to the player's breathtaking array of flute ensembles, on tunes such as ‘Minuet in G by Beethoven,’ and the energetic ‘Drunken Sailor.’

Adding to the impression that De Bernières is happy to present himself as host rather than star is the fact that he chooses to read the poetry of others alongside his own.

Opening each verse with a few corny jokes, a relaxed audience applaud renditions of the Seamus Heaney's Autumn-themed ‘Blackberry picking,’ as well De Bernières own ‘Belfast 1998,’ which likens the city to a sleeping beauty that has finally woken up.

Some of the most touching poems, however, come from the collection of De Bernières own father, one such piece, ‘Evening Love’, describing the blossoming of new love in the unexpected setting of a nursing home.

De Bernières effortlessly blends seriousness with humour and his London-inspired poem, ‘Nobby’, about a horse, is made all the funnier by a shamelessly hammy cockney delivery.

The audience leaves the tent entertained, having witnessed a deceptively well-structured performance that, despite a few dodgy knock knock jokes, makes musical and literary expertise look easy.