IN the climax to York Theatre Royal’s Sovereign Season, a community cast will stage a majestic outdoor summer production in the grounds of King’s Manor in Exhibition Square.
Adapted for the stage by prolific York playwright Mike Kenny, the world premiere of CJ Sansom’s York-based Tudor thriller will run from July 15 to 30 under the direction of Juliet Forster, John R Wilkinson and Mingyu Lin.
York Theatre Royal is seeking to assemble a cast of 100 adults and young performers aged nine and over from this month’s auditions for a production “on a grand scale”.
The use of King’s Manor could not be more apt, given Sansom’s setting of the story in Tudor York in 1541, when the Council of the North would meet there.
History records that St Mary’s Abbey, in Museum Gardens immediately behind King’s Manor, was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539, destroying most of the monastery. King’s Manor – or Abbot’s House as it was known – survived, however, and continued to be the Council of the North’s headquarters.
In anticipation of an “ostentatious” Royal visit by Henry VIII and Queen Catherine Howard in 1541, the city of York repaired and improved the building. The royal party duly occupied the manor house for 12 days, their visit leading to the building becoming known as King’s Manor.
In Sansom’s York of 1541, the play follows lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak who await the arrival of Henry VIII on his northern progress.
Tasked with a secret mission, Shardlake is protecting a dangerous prisoner who is to be returned to London for interrogation. When the murder of a York glazier plunges Shardlake into a deep mystery that threatens the Tudor dynasty itself, he must work against time to avert a terrifying chain of events.
Told through the voices of the people of York, the Theatre Royal production promises to release all the intrigue, conspiracy and thrills of Sansom’s novel. Alongside the community ensemble, two professional actors will star in the production too. Rehearsals begin on April 15, taking in two weekday evenings and Saturday daytimes in the lead-up to the tech weeks from July 3 and 10.
Already the Sovereign Season has taken in the world premiere of David Reed’s Guy Fawkes, with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s political thriller Julius Caesar still to come from June 13 to 17, directed by Atri Banerjee.
“A lot of the plays in the season deal with different forms of leadership and resistance; what’s good leadership; what’s good sovereignty,” says Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster.
“The jewel in the crown is CJ Sansom’s historical thriller Sovereign, the third book in the Shardlake trilogy, where Henry VIII came up here to sort out the northern rebels, beat us into line and show his power in his northern progress.”
Welcoming the chance to adapt Sovereign, Mike Kenny says: “It will push the form of community theatre in all sorts of ways. I got invited to a conference in Montpellier [France] about large-scale community theatre, and though I’d never thought of it as being a very British thing, I was asked to talk about the York experience of staging community plays.
“I was aware, as I was talking through the experience, that every time we’ve done such a play, we were pushing the envelope because, in York, we don’t take the pre-digested version, we take the local story and push it.
“In this instance, I don’t think anyone has done that with a whodunit like this one, where Shardlake, the central character is disabled and gets a lot of stick because of that.”
Mike continues. “The book is set in 1541, well before Shakespeare’s play Richard III was written [1592-93], which reflected attitudes towards disability. It’s an interesting development in community theatre to have a disabled actor in the lead role.”
Co-director John R Wilkinson points out: “Shardlake’s sidekick is Jewish, another prejudice of that time.”
Mike rejoins: “That’s particularly potent in York, where the play is set, more than 300 years after the Massacre at St Clifford’s Tower, where the Jewish pogrom happened in 1190. A couple of the scenes are set there, so it’s pushed the boat again.”
Juliet says: “It’s the first time we’ve done an adaptation as a community play. Normally we take history and creative a fictional history, like we did for Blood + Chocolate, In Fog And Falling Snow, Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes and The Coppergate Woman.
“This time, there’s already an historical fictional narrative and we’re then bringing out the really strong York connections.”
Mike notes how: “One of the things that hit me hard was how Henry VIII was directly responsible for the end of the medieval Mystery Plays, which had been a Catholic tradition in York. They came to an end in Henry’s time, finally being stopped 20 years after his visit.”
Just as the revived York Mystery Plays have set the benchmark for community productions in the city, so York Theatre Royal continues to relish picking up the baton and taking that theatrical form in new directions.
York Theatre Royal presents CJ Sansom’s Sovereign at King’s Manor, Exhibition Square, York, from July 15 to 30. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Copyright of The Press, York