Sunday 25 November 2018

Theatre review: Ralegh: The Treason Trial

Shakespeare's Globe dip their toe into verbatim theatre, although as befits the venue there's no recent politics or songs about serial killers - actor Oliver Chris has turned playwright and director by editing together the equivalent of court transcripts from 1603. The second of Michelle Terry's Ambitious Fiends is Sir Walter Ralegh (his preferred spelling, although like most of his contemporaries he doesn't really seem to have cared much either way,) a man who like most people I associate with Elizabeth I (and tobacco, and potatoes,) but whose later life I don't remember ever hearing much about. This gap in my knowledge might not be an accident, as once Elizabeth's reign was over Ralegh seems to have been a bit of an inconvenience to have around, and her successor's regime was keen to sweep him under the carpet as much as possible. As the title Ralegh: The Treason Trial suggests, this didn't happen in the subtlest of ways.

When Lord Cobham was convicted of hatching a plot with Spain to assassinate James I and replace him with a Catholic cousin, Ralegh was accused of being the plot’s instigator, Cobham pointing the finger at him for giving him letters and manuscripts that encouraged the treason. Before coming to the Swanamaker, Chris’ production played in Winchester Great Hall, the location of the real trial of Ralegh (Simon Paisley Day.) But Jessica Worrall’s design is modern-dress, turning the theatre into a modern courtroom, and making the 17th-century arguments feel like they need to stand up to present-day standards – something they flat-out fail to do.

Ralegh defended himself, which means the whole play falls largely to Paisley Day and Nathalie Armin as prosecutor Coke, whose arguments seem pretty weak by today’s standards. In fact in the early stages of the play this is to its detriment, as her endless going round in circles making vague accusations with nothing to back them up is a bit dull. It picks up when the lack of evidence tips over into the ridiculous – Ralegh’s trial is considered a milestone in British law, presumably as an example of how not to do it. The problem with the presumption of guilt is quickly apparent as it becomes a matter of one man’s word against another’s, and the very fact of Ralegh having been called a traitor is enough for Coke to dismiss his trustworthiness. As his main accuser is also in the Tower for treason, the court won’t even call him to testify – in one of the more bizarre moments, the sole witness is a sailor who claims to have heard an unnamed Spaniard gossip about Ralegh, meaning the case rests on hearsay, pure and simple.

The total lack of evidence also ties in nicely to the rest of the season, as I got echoes of Macbeth killing the guards before they can be questioned in the fact that the case rests heavily on a manuscript that may or may not have passed from Ralegh to Cobham: It’s the most important piece of evidence but, as it could be interpreted as treasonous, the only copy was burnt before the trial. One of the show’s gimmicks is to have 12 members of the real audience as the jury, with the interval serving as an adjournment for them to deliberate; this turns out to be a red herring, as the 1603 ruling is out of their hands, but serves as another example of how the trial was a stitch-up. The show’s ending is a bit misleading – a quick Wikipedia check confirms this wasn’t the end of Ralegh’s story, and while he did get executed 15 years later on a different charge he wasn’t hanged, drawn and quartered as the ending suggests – but while this is a verbatim play that doesn’t take its words from current events, the fake news and opinion presented as of equal value to proven fact mean at times it doesn’t feel all that distant.

Ralegh: The Treason Trial by Oliver Chris is booking in repertory until the 30th of November at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes including adjournment.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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