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Ralegh: The Treason Trial review at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – ‘entertaining verbatim play’

Simon Paisley Day and Nathalie Armin in Ralegh: The Treason Trial. Photo: Tristram Kenton

In 1603, Sir Walter Ralegh was accused of conspiring to kill the new king, James I, and replace him with Lady Arabella Stuart. Actor Oliver Chris’ semi-interactive verbatim play re-sets the treason trial in a modern day courtroom. The twist is that, at each performance, a pre-selected jury of twelve audience members listen to the testimony, before breaking to deliberate and returning to deliver their verdict.

Jessica Worrall’s subtle design – red carpet, over-polished oak benches, coat of arms – make the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse the perfect location for a court system that both has and hasn’t updated itself since Ralegh‘s day.

And like a real court of law, the production is simultaneously absorbing in its premise and, at points, a little dull as the bureaucratic cogs of the legal proceedings slowly rotate.

Nathalie Armin gives an impressive performance as Coke, or ‘Madam Attorney’, strutting and posturing as the lawyer hell-bent on painting the accused as out-and-out evil.

Yet it’s clear the sympathies of Chris (who also directs) lie with Sir Walter. Simon Paisley Day is given the run of the stage when making his impassioned defence. Proudly upright, his speeches are peppered with droll asides and seemingly common sense pleas to jury members.

So it’s genuinely amusing when, on press night, the court reconvenes and the verdict is delivered: Guilty. Perhaps the truth is that, given the chance, an audience will vote for the outcome that makes the best theatre – even at the expense of a man being hung, drawn and quartered.

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

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Entertaining semi-immersive verbatim staging of the trial of Walter Ralegh