Ralegh The Treason Trial

Compiled, edited and dramatised by Oliver Chris
Shakespeare's Globe
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe

Simon Paisley Day as Sir Walter Ralegh Credit: Tristram Kenton

Sir Walter Ralegh? How do you remember him: as the guy who threw his cloak over a puddle to save Elizabeth I from getting her feet wet (not very practical and surely apocryphal), the man who introduced tobacco to English society, an adventurer and founder of unsuccessful American colonies who eventually got his head chopped off?

He went from being a royal favourite to being in royal bad books (probably fluctuating according to how much he contributed to the Queen’s coffers), though she did get upset when he secretly married one of her ladies. By the end of her reign, he had been made Governor of Jersey but made something of an enemy of her chief minister Robert Cecil and his allies who arranging the succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. In 1603, sixteen weeks after Elizabeth’s death, he was arrested on suspicion of treason and put on trial that November in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle, plague preventing the trial from being in London.

Oliver Chris has taken court records and other contemporary accounts of that trial to create this shortened version (cuts include 45 minutes in Latin). What he offers is in effect verbatim, though he stages it in modern dress (first where it actually took place in Winchester and now in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) with a modern jury drawn from the audience delivering the verdict.

In history, Ralegh was found guilty and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. But was this a rigged show trial? To modern eyes it certainly seems it with its refusal to call witnesses apart from one briefly seen seaman (Jay Varsani) who is supposed to have overheard a conversation in a Spanish port and the only other evidence offered consists of the prosecution’s accusations and statements made under duress.

The trail followed the process of law, as then interpreted, but that doesn’t mean that it delivered justice and the drama here comes from the way the prosecution and the bench close in on a man who can only protest his innocence.

From Shylock versus Antonio to St Joan and modern verbatim plays, trial scenes can make strong theatre and the State here arraigning a lone man, who keeps his dignity, is dramatic and unsettling.

Modern dress, with the accused being brought in by uniformed policemen makes the apparent injustice more obvious and extra modernity is provided by casting women as the presiding Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham and the prosecuting Attorney General Sir Edward Coke and supporting attorney Sir John Heale: not just gender-blind but making them female lawyers.

There are no legal robes or white wigs but dark leisure suits and black skirts.

Simon Paisley Day wears an elegantly cut grey suit as Sir Walter, his rings and a single drop pearl earring, a gesture towards the flamboyance of the Elizabethan courtier. He walks with a stick, reminding people of the wound that he got at a raid on Cadiz and with a hacking cough, which he attributes to months held in a damp room in the Tower. This is a man showing remarkable restraint despite his simmering frustration.

He has to face the vituperative assault of Nathalie Armin’s Coke who calls him “viper” and much worse as she declares that he has plotted the death of the King and his “cubs”. Armin makes her viciously vindictive and is backed up by Fiona Hampton’s Heale, while Pooky Quesnel as Chief Justice at first does seem to represent justice but when Ralegh refers to legal process proves equally inflexible. When he questions their interpretation, the put-down is, “we don’t conceive the law, we know the law.”

The attack is so relentless that it becomes briefly tedious but sympathy for Ralegh pulls back the attention. Day plays him with a light Devon accent while those opposing him have very Received Pronunciation voices (except for the Chief Justice’s short “a”). Is that an intentional reminder of the establishment’s attitude to a man they resented as an upstart, a man they accuse (probably rightly) of pride and atheism?

However, these are modern figures rather than historical portraits (Simon Startin’s suave Cecil is nothing like the short hunchback whom Elizabeth called “my pygmy” and James “my little beagle”). Audiences are encouraged to see this through modern eyes.

Their reaction to this presentation of the law in action seems at odds with the verdict of “guilty” which the jury came back with at both Winchester and Southbank press nights and when I saw it, though I can’t be sure that the booing and outraged stamping on upper levels was not artificially augmented.

When the whole theatre has stood for the bench’s departure and only Ralegh is left on stage with the court clerk (Amanda Wright), he is given the last word—and literally he is quoting his very relevant poem The Lie. In fact, his sentence was later commuted and after 13 years in the Tower he was released, though rearrested for breaching the terms of his pardon when men under his command attacked a Spanish settlement on the Orinoco. He was finally executed in 1618 to pacify the Spanish ambassador.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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