Ralegh: The Treason Trial, Winchester Great Hall & Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Immersed in history on the stage where it happened!”

On the 17th November, 1603 in The Great Hall, Winchester hundreds gathered expectantly as Sir Walter Ralegh was brought before the Court to be tried for treason. On the anniversary of this historic trial 415 years later an audience again gathered in the Great Hall to hear the trial re-enacted from verbatim accounts by sources present at the original trial and compiled, edited, dramatised and directed by Oliver Chris. The only difference this time was the absence of ruffs and doublets in favour of the bureaucratic dress of a modern day courthouse.

With 12 members of the audience sworn in as jury members, the performance became a court hearing as the Attorney, Coke, played by Nathalie Armin proceeded to read the indictment and deliver ‘the proofs’. As in 1603 it was done with ‘intemperate zeal’ as Coke declared to the jury and gallery that Ralegh was “the most vile and execrable traitor that ever lived” haranguing and attacking him at every turn. Modern dress maybe but with no right to counsel and with little or no protection from judges, Popham, Cecil and Howard, Ralegh, was left to defend himself against the circumstantial, somewhat contradictory and often hearsay evidence levelled at him.

Simon Paisley Day gives an impressive and studied performance as Ralegh, railing against the court’s decision not to produce the only witness to the alleged conspiracy, Lord Cobham, whilst entreating the jury to accept his protestations of innocence.

At the conclusion of the evidence the jury were taken out to consider their verdict and given just 15 minutes, the time it took the original jury to deliberate and make a decision. Joined by the Clerk of the Court to ‘guide’ us through the evidence, the ‘12 good men and true’ or in this case 7 good women and 5 good men, set about their task having diligently taken notes throughout. A straw poll at the start of the debate revealed a unanimous group but with the Clerk’s interpretation of the evidence, an imperious Amanda Wright, after a quarter of an hour, which flew by, 5 members had been swayed. As the Foreman of the Jury it would not be appropriate to reveal our majority verdict save only that some of us would have been be-knighted and some beheaded!

Whilst one can re-enact history, even with the benefit of hindsight, one cannot rewrite it. The reaction of the audience when the verdict was read out was testament to just how much everyone had become enthralled with the drama being played out in front of them.

After its short run at the Winchester Great Hall, 16th-18th November, it transfers to the atmospheric Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe for a limited run from the 24th-30th November.

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