To mark 500 years since Henry VIII became king, Hampton Court Palace saw The Play of the Weather rehearsed and performed in its Great Hall in 2009. This led to the ‘Staging the Scottish Court’ project to produce A Satire of the Three Estates at Linlithgow Palace in 2013.
For Professor Walker, performing a play with real actors is the only way to study drama in its natural habitat. By restaging The Play of the Weather in Hampton Court Palace’s Great Hall, he could show how the specific time and space in which the play was performed had political significance.
His research on Tudor drama showed how this play was a political act in itself and would have been viewed that way by its original audience, who would have recognised it as a commentary on Henry’s divorce, for example. By putting on the play in the Great Hall, these issues would become clearer to a modern audience through watching it in its original context.
Walker and Betteridge first wrote an article in 2007 called ‘Performance in Research’. This was based on a project funded by the AHRC (Arts & Humanities Research Council), which used a small cast to perform key scenes from the play in different ways. The questions this raised formed the basis of a new application to the AHRC in order to stage a full production of The Play of the Weather at Hampton Court Palace in 2009-2010.
By staging the play, the project tested Walker’s ideas not just in theory, but also in practice. The performance examined how the play used official courtly spaces in the Great Hall. This created new understanding of where people of different ranks would sit while watching the play and how actors might interact with them. It also showed how the entrances, exits and movement around the hall reflected the rules regarding access to the king. These were all questions of great interest to staff at Hampton Court Palace, who could use the answers to better describe life in the palace to visitors.
This led to a further successful AHRC-funded project, ‘Staging the Scottish Court’. This two-year research project staged Sir David Lyndsay’s A Satire of the Three Estates in order to look at issues of identity and nationality through representations of the Stewart Court and the Scottish Renaissance. The first production of the play was performed in June 2013 on the loch-side parkland surrounding Linlithgow palace. Then the play’s ‘lost’ first version was also performed in the palace’s Great Hall and at Stirling Castle. This version was first performed in Linlithgow in 1540.
Academics from across the UK worked with archaeologists, theatre professionals, filmmakers and interpreters from Historic Scotland to make the project a success.
An innovative collaboration
Staging the Henrician Court was an innovative and imaginative collaboration between researchers and a historic palace. By using a major heritage site as part of a performance, it showed how such sites can be used in unique ways to bring history alive. It also significantly increased visitor numbers to the palace.
Hampton Court Palace used the performance for its own research into life in the palace and how the site could be used in new ways to better show this to its visitors. As visitors were able to observe rehearsals as well as performances, the project directly involved the public in this collaboration.
Pivotal role in Historic Royal Palaces's new research strategy
Historic Royal Palaces and Hampton Court Palace benefited from the chance to collaborate on a research-led performance that was a model example of working together to find answers to historic questions. It also used performance as a new way for heritage sites to engage audiences and visitors.
The links with Hampton Court Palace and Historic Royal Palaces have led to an ongoing partnership, including new productions of A Little Neck, produced by Betteridge and informed by Walker's research, and Aphra Behn’s The Rover.
Ongoing impact of the project
As a result of the success of the project, Walker and Betteridge worked with Historic Scotland on an AHRC-funded production of Lyndsay's A Satire of the Three Estates at Linlithgow Palace and Stirling Castle in 2013. This drew directly on the lessons learned from Staging the Henrician Court and the working relationships established with Historic Royal Palaces.
Impact on public audiences
The project had a significant impact on wider public audiences. Rehearsals were made part of the visitor experience, with signage and guide commentary pointing out that such performances were part of the life of the Tudor palace. This gave visitors a sense of the building’s history, and its use as a performance space.
The palace and its visitors benefitted from the rehearsals and performances. Walker and Betteridge were also involved with the `Henry VIII 2009' exhibition, offering expert advice regarding the events.
Audiences made up of members of the public and Historic Royal Palaces staff attended the productions in 2009 and 2010, and thousands of visitors passed through the Hall while rehearsals were in progress.
Although difficult to know the rehearsal's impact on visitor figures exactly, in 2009 Historic Royal Palaces saw an increase of 43% (115,287) in visitor numbers, much greater than the 10% increase they had hoped for.
The project was highlighted in the AHRC's Annual Report and Accounts for 2010-11 as a case study of good practice in `Supporting the Cultural Sector'. The report noted that it “enabled a public audience to experience the Great Hall as it once was. It also allowed the project team, with the involvement of the general public, to test academic theories about the management of space in Henry's court." (p.7).