REHEARSING the lead role in York Theatre Royal’s summer community production can be lonely for Kate Hampson.
“On a morning rehearsal, it’s usually just been me and the directors,” says Kate, the only professional in Juliet Forster and John R Wilkinson’s cast of 90 for Maureen Lennon’s epic storytelling drama The Coppergate Woman.
This is partly because the York actor and yoga enthusiast had to play catch-up. “I’ve stepped into rehearsals when you don’t want to feel like you’re on the back foot, but Juliet and John have done a great job in integrating me after the community cast started a while before me and had already formed various scenes. My task has been to think, ‘how do I enhance those scenes?’.”
Fostering a love of theatre from the age of eight and trained in theatre, film and television at York St John University and clowning at the Utrecht School of Arts, Kate has performed for Northern Broadsides, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck Theatre, playing Mother and Mrs Perks in The Railway Children last winter, but The Coppergate Woman will mark two firsts.
“I’m working with a community cast for the first time,” she says. “There’s a little bit of pressure there; it’s a challenge, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a feeling of it being daunting, but everyone has been really supportive and it’s been exhilarating to work with so many people. I think it’s perfect that a play all about the community has been cast from the community.”
Despite living in York for 27 years, Huddersfield-born Kate has never performed on the Theatre Royal’s main-house stage. “I did some work on a New Playwrights project, doing play readings with Damian [former artistic director Damian Cruden], but that was in the Studio, so Saturday will be my first time,” she says.
She will be keeping it in the family, however, as her husband, fellow professional actor Julian Kay [from the Kay family of York lawyers] has graced that stage, performing in pantomimes.
Kate took a ten-year break from the stage to focus on bringing up their two children (son Arthur, 14, who has taken his first steps as an actor in Doctor Who and Brassic, and daughter Elsie, 12).
“I admire actors who do continue to work in theatre when they have a young family, but with both Julian and I doing theatre professionally, it just felt that wasn’t possible,” she says.
“In those ten years off stage, I did some TV and commercials, and if you’re lucky enough the corporate world will sustain you. I love theatre but with young children, they’re the priority.”
The Railway Children at Hull Truck was a joyous return. “It’s lovely to be back in theatre, playing to live audiences, working with people in the business again,” says Kate.
From Saturday, she will be experiencing that excitement again, playing the title role in The Coppergate Woman, Maureen Lennon’s story that puts the flesh on the bones of a woman whose remains were found near the River Foss and are now exhibited under glass at the Jorvik Viking Centre.
“What we know from history is that she was either Norwegian or northern Scottish and you can tell from her teeth that she’d eaten a lot of herring,” says Kate.
“So, you make choices from that. Is she Scandinavian, is she northern? We’re identifying her as Yorkshire; we know she came to York in her teens. It’s curious to think about what her accent would have sounded like, and I guess we can’t really know, so you just have to decide.”
Kate was familiar with the Coppergate Woman from the many visits she undertook to Jorvik with her children. “I felt like we were almost on speaking terms as we went there so frequently. At one point, the children kept wanting to go every weekend!” she recalls.
In Lennon’s play, the Coppergate Woman vacates her Jorvik resting place to venture into “crisis-hit modern-day York”. “Maureen weaves post-Covid stories into the play, when there’s still a hangover from such challenging times,” says Kate. “She also weaves in more Norse myths and legends and stories of everyday York folk today.
“Ultimately, it’s all about storytelling, connecting and communicating, and how we collaborate with each other. It’s a play about hope and how we need to come together for our future.”
At the core of that play is the Coppergate Woman, as portrayed by Kate. “It’s a privilege to be playing a real person – wondering what she looked like, what she thought and what her origins were. You want to honour her, as you would with any real person you play,” she says.
“That’s another pressure. To do her justice, this woman who had family, friends, a job, and you want to recognise that sensitively – and Maureen has done that in her writing.
“I listened to a podcast about the Coppergate Woman, where they looked at historical artefacts, and then historians created her life from that, but not just one life, but various options. Maureen listed to that podcast too and chose the play’s path from that.”
Summing up The Coppergate Woman, Kate says: “For me it’s about Norse legends and myths, and though Norse gods are usually imposing figures, the Coppergate Woman is a real woman who existed, and it’s important to see her as a human that the audience can connect with.
“We know very little about her, but we’re trying to get the essence of her, and that’s why you have to ground her in a real person.”
Championing York Theatre Royal’s passion for staging community theatre productions, Kate concludes: “It’s become a tradition here, and one the management wants to continue as the Theatre Royal were leading lights in establishing such shows. It’s a real testament to the theatre’s commitment that so soon after the Covid lockdowns, they’re mounting a play on such a scale.
“It’s remarkable how so many people want to give so much time to make a drama together, telling stories of York.”
The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal, July 30 to August 7 (no shows on July 31 and August 1). Performances: 7.30pm, July 30, August 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6; 2.30pm, August 6 and 7. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Copyright of The Press, York