A Little Neck: immersive theatre at Hampton Court Palace
By Tom Betteridge, Steve King and Sally Scott
In 2009, Hampton Court hosted A Little Neck, a drama which retold events leading up to the downfall of Anne Boleyn. It used the famous tragedy to explore the nature, circulation and politicisation of medical knowledge in the context of the Tudor court. This immersive theatrical event involved the actors and audience roaming through the building, in a re-creation of everyday Tudor life that showed some of the complexities of the science and medicine of the era.
Goat and Monkey Theatre Company staged the performance, with theatrical production coordinated by Professor Tom Betteridge of Oxford Brookes University. The play was based on academic research by Professor Steve King and Dr Elizabeth Hurren in the Centre for Medical Humanities at the University of Leicester, and was funded by the Wellcome Trust. The creative team also worked closely with members of staff at Hampton Court Palace, particularly the building’s curator, Dr Kent Rawlinson, who granted unprecedented access to areas normally closed to the general public. This included the actual birthing room in which Tudor Queens went into labour.
One of the fascinating outcomes of being part of this major theatrical reconstruction was the opportunity for everyone involved to share expertise, creating together new ways of experiencing how the human body was understood in the past. From the start, the project was driven by a creative vision to produce an interactive piece of drama that enabled audiences to immerse themselves in Hampton Court Palace as a place of medicine and illness. In everyday life inside the building there were metaphors of failing bodies, pollution and disease, birth and death, and these directly affected the outcome of a tumultuous period in the history of the Tudor court.
In practical terms, the team used a variety of theatrical devices to hold the audience’s medical attention. Gossip about Anne Boleyn’s predicaments in childbirth was whispered down the corridors, getting louder and louder as the medical drama reached its climax. In the herb gardens and kitchens, apothecaries ordered the staff to prepare medical recipes to promote better procreation. Physicians entered the scene with secret medical texts on how to conceive a male heir, to create theatrical tension.
At the heart of A Little Neck was a famous court doctor called William Butts. The part was played by Goat and Monkey’s leading actor, Ian Summers, bringing to life one of the people permitted to attend the Privy Chamber of Henry VIII. Butts had to be not only a skilled physician but a consummate politician too. To survive in the royal household he had to navigate the religious and intellectual storms of Henry’s court. This meant that his medical diagnosis sometimes had a Catholic and at other times a Protestant flavour. It is remarkable that a man who treated most of the royal household managed to recruit political allies like Hugh Latimer without damaging his reputation. To stay in the King’s good graces was remarkable, especially once Henry was determined to be rid of Anne and casting around for a scapegoat.
A Little Neck dramatised the events resulting from Anne Boleyn’s final miscarriage in early 1536. This was a tumultuous time that tested Butts’s skills as courtier and physician. He was one of the few people to know the intimate details of the miscarriage. That privileged medical access to the Queen’s body soon entwined him in a political web of fantasies spun by her enemies. The gossips alleged (falsely) that she had given birth to a deformed fetus, a boy-child misshapen by carnal sin. Butts’s word had the power to silence or confirm the medical rumours. Any whiff of monstrosity would be used by the Queen’s enemies to condemn her. In 1536, Butts was presented with a classic medico-ethical dilemma: to protect his patient or his professional standing, which allowed him to advance medical reform in royal circles.
Butts shared with the audience his innermost thoughts and struggling conscience. The project team, however, did not want simply to create a piece of costume drama. Rather, they wanted to produce a play that asked its audience to become immersed in the genuine dilemmas of the characters standing beside them. Butts’s position in 1536 was historically specific, but it also reflects the kind of difficult ethical position in which doctors and members of the medical profession have found themselves across history. In turn, the audiences came to feel what it cost Butts personally to make the very human decision to side with those in power for his personal safety. Keeping on the right side of medical propaganda was a vital part of his survival strategy.
Audience feedback confirmed that the drama brought home the extent to which the palace was a ‘place of medicine’, somewhere people lived and died, where women gave birth, where health and disease were a daily preoccupation, and how the wellbeing of the royal family was a metaphor for the health of the nation as a whole. A Little Neck staged a number of important Tudor medical procedures to encourage the audience to make these historical connections: the casting of horoscopes to predict and encourage a woman’s fertility; humoral medicine with bleeding, urine-testing and self-dosing using herbals; and music as medicine for troubled minds. The team wanted the audience to experience, albeit at a historical distance, what it would have meant to live at a time when the fate of a person’s life or the treatment of a serious medical condition had to rely on standard procedures which are now alien to modern bioscience.
One of the innovative dramatic devices that the theatre company used was the idea of gossip, rumour and intrigue being like a disease spreading through Hampton Court, the body politic, as the cancerous rumours surrounding Anne Boleyn’s downfall infected everyone’s perceptions of her failure to produce a male heir. Central to this aspect of the show were the mummers, who performed the role of a chorus and became increasingly diseased and disturbing as the show went on.
The mummers had a complex relationship with the audience, intermingling, talking to them, laughing and joking, but also worrying them. As the show continued and the dramatic tension gathered pace, the mummers encouraged more and more of the audience to don plague masks for their health, until in the final scene everyone – actors and audience – in masks confronted Anne Boleyn. In Base Court, she met her fate, publicly shunned by the Hampton Court community.
One of the most positive outcomes of creating and staging the drama is that a number of important lessons were learned, and these have been formative for future collaborations:
- Research and development takes time. The creative process is successful when academics have the space to fully engage in conveying complex medical and scientific concepts in an engaging way with their partners.
- Meeting regularly over coffee to talk through ideas informally was a vital part of the script’s development. It built trust, and broke down any intellectual barriers and creative tensions, by encouraging everyone to feel they had a stake in the final production.
- The production coordinator was involved right from the start so that someone had the clear responsibility for pulling everyone on the grant together and coordinating with Hampton Court staff.
- The script was written by the theatre company but it was the responsibility of the academic experts to close read it and do any rewrites to make sure the production had credibility. The academics then had to stand back and trust the theatre company to deploy their creative expertise to create the drama.
- It is crucial to get the infrastructure right to ensure that a strong piece of public engagement produces good theatre. The Hampton Court staff were committed to showing that the palace was not simply a sterile heritage site but somewhere that people lived and died, where doctors strove under very difficult circumstances to practise medicine. Being able to look down a dirty drain, watch real food being cooked and witness childbirth re-enacted made a big impression on audiences (see feedback below) keen on seeing hidden court life.
- Innovative storylines are crucial when trying to stimulate a more creative exchange of ideas. The play had four individual storylines, which kept overlapping until the whole drama came together at the end. Audience members were able to immerse themselves in events from different perspectives. The idea was to show that medical history has lots of human motivations and viewpoints. It also meant that the audience could return to see the production again during the play’s run, if they wanted to explore a new angle they had not seen before on their first visit.
- Immersive theatre by Goat and Monkey is innovative and reflects how audiences today want to be part of the historical action, to physically experience the secret world of medicine and science at Hampton Court.
A Little Neck was a sell-out success. The production ran for three weeks and achieved 100 per cent capacity, with a total of 2100 audience members seeing the drama. Following the production, Goat and Monkey received 150 requests to join their mailing list and ten requests to restage the production (significant numbers for a small company following a fixed run). The team also received a substantial volume of positive audience comments, always the best test of success in public engagement:
- “It was one of the best experiences of my life”
- “It absolutely blew me away. The most gripping, entertaining and high-quality show I’ve ever seen”
- “I loved wandering around Hampton Court in the shadows, eavesdropping on conversations in corridors, peering through screens and over banisters…the whole thing was absolutely marvellous, so atmospheric and well-choreographed and performed.”
- “As a history teacher I have always wanted to travel back in time and be a fly on the wall watching events unfold. You gave me more than that. I was actually there witnessing and being part of the intrigue leading up to the downfall of Anne Boleyn. An awesome experience.”
- “It was such an atmospheric performance, and so cleverly done. I loved the fact that the four stories intertwined the whole way through culminating in the amazingly moving final scene.”
Tom Betteridge is Professor of English Literature and Drama at Oxford Brookes University (E firstname.lastname@example.org). Steve King is Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Leicester (E email@example.com). Sally Scott is Executive Producer and Creator at Goat and Monkey Theatre Company.