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Historian Mathew Lyons: Hearing the dead speak in plays drawn from trial transcripts makes for gripping theatre

The Great Hall, Winchester Castle, where the trial of Sir Walter Ralegh was held on November 17, 1603. Photo: Jacek Wojnarowski/Shutterstock
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Before its run in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, Oliver Chris’ staging of Ralegh: The Treason Trial was put on in the Great Hall in Winchester, where the trial of Sir Walter itself was held on November 17, 1603.

It was great theatre in the first place, and it’s not difficult to see why Chris was attracted to adapting it for the stage.

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 were certainly 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.

Chris has staged the trial with gender-neutral casting and in modern dress, which 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 the participants?

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, 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 the barrister himself surely did on the day.

At the performance I attended, there were audible gasp around the room when the jury found Ralegh guilty

It creates 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 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 I 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 much 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.

Mathew Lyons is a writer and historian. His most recent book, The Favourite, explored the relationship between Sir Walter Ralegh and Elizabeth I. Ralegh: The Treason Trial runs at Shakespeare Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until November 30

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True review at Underbelly, Edinburgh – ‘fascinating portrayal of 17th-century rape trial’

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