Before its run in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre beginning 24 November, Oliver Chris’ staging of Sir Walter Ralegh’s treason trial had several performances in the Great Hall in Winchester, where the trial itself was held on 17 November 1603.
Ralegh had been Elizabeth I’s favourite. But he had no standing with James I, and when the latter came to the throne in March the same year, Ralegh’s principal sources of revenue and status – together with his grace-and-favour house on the Strand – were taken away from him.
There certainly were plots against James in the early months of his reign, but was Ralegh discontented enough to join them? The case against him was built around the testimony of one man, the self-confessed co-conspirator, Henry Brooke, the 11th Baron Cobham. But Cobham kept changing his story, and the prosecution refused to allow him to appear as a witness. Much of the trial’s drama revolved around this central point, and Ralegh’s inability to cross-examine his only accuser.
Ralegh was found guilty, as traitors almost always were, but his performance in court electrified all those present and wholly transformed his reputation. “Never was a man so hated and so popular, in so short a time,” an eyewitness said.
It was great theatre in the first place, then, and it’s not difficult to see why Chris was attracted to adapting it for the stage. (Radio 4 broadcast a different adaptation by the historian Christopher Lee in 2005, with Michael York in the lead.)
Chris has staged the trial with gender neutral casting and in modern dress. This inevitably invites the audience to ask exactly what it is seeing. To what extent is this a reconstruction or a fictionalised re-imagining? The production claims – rightly – textual fidelity to the transcripts, but what truths does it owe to – or claim for – the participants?
The choices Chris and his team have made foreground these issues more than they elide them, but the production’s relationship to the source material is perhaps more complicated than it first appears.
Historians have long thought that the chief prosecution counsel, Sir Edward Coke, presented his case poorly; in clarifying its exposition, Chris arguably flatters him here. Nathalie Armin, too, gives a far more nuanced and sympathetic performance as Coke than Coke himself surely did on the day.
This may not be a bad thing, per se, but it does create a different dynamic between Coke and Ralegh: the latter’s calmness and easy, confident demeanour in the face of Coke’s bombast and invective was one of the things that most impressed people at the time.
Chris says he sees the play’s relevance in the context of “a morally questionable individual up against a biased political and legal elite”. I’m not sure it quite reaches that benchmark. The drama of a man fighting a rigged system still shines through – and there are moments when Simon Paisley Day’s desperate eloquence is quite as breathtaking as Ralegh’s must have been – but both the personal and the wider political drama are perhaps more elusive.
Nevertheless, the contemporary setting is surely right, and the decision to invite 12 audience members to act as jurors an inspired one. At the performance that this reviewer attended, there were audible gasp around the room when the jury found Ralegh guilty. It was a perfect theatrical moment: true to the experience both of those watching the production and those who packed the galleries in 1603, and it capped an absorbing and at times gripping production, well worth seeing as a drama in its own right, as well as for its historic significance.
I hope others will follow Chris’ lead and seek inspiration in the archives. As with Breach Theatre’s recent award-winning production of It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, based on the rape prosecution brought by Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, the visceral authenticity of these transcripts – the chance to hear the dead speak for themselves – is hard to match.
Note: This is a review for The Stage of the Globe theatre’s production of Ralegh: The Treason Trial, performed at The Great Hall, Winchester on 17 November 2018.