All the King’s Fools: the actor’s view
Penny Lepisz performed in All the King’s Fools as Mistress Bessie Peach – alongside her colleagues from The Misfits as well as Charles Neville (who played the Master of the Revels) and Richard Evans (who played the King). Here she reflects on the project in her own words on what the experience has meant to her performance.
For many years I have had an interest in Henry VIII and his court. I noticed that fools had that talent for making people laugh, especially the King. Henry VIII was a grouchy old man and a wrong word could send you to the Tower, but he needed somebody to amuse him and Will Somer was very close to the King. Some of the Queens, like Anne Boleyn and Kateryn Parr, had a female fool or jester called Jane the Fool; I think she also served under Queen Mary as well.
We presented her [Suzannah Lipscomb] with a list of questions about how people with learning difficulties were treated in Henry VIII’s time and she gave us some fascinating answers: we found out what fools were dressed as, how they lived and the respect with which they were treated. They were treated well but other people with learning difficulties might have been treated much, much worse. Some people believed that fools had divine powers and they could prophesy things which would be useful to the monarchs.
Some people thought they were silly and stupid but to the King and the court they were very special people. They could amuse and entertain. Where anyone else with a learning difficulty might have been treated worse, they were clothed and fed and they had a special position. They didn’t eat scraps. That was called bouche of court.
In December 2009 we went up to the British Library for a research visit and we looked at the Psalter of Henry VIII. It showed Henry and his fool Will Somer at his side. He was playing a harp. That was the purpose of our visit to the British Library, to learn more about that Psalter and what it was all about.
We went for a trip up to Hampton Court to see where we were going to perform – the Great Hall, and all the places in the promenade performance. We organised the room into parts of the Palace, and we did the devising of the pieces we were going to perform. We also had Charles and Richard come down to work with us. On top of that was the music as well. I composed some rhymes, which I knew the King would like, and set them to music.
In the second version, the King was ailing, he was sick. Mirth was part of medicine because, if you say a quip – a witty quip – and get the King to say “I like that”, that would heal him. Those rhymes, jokes, short sketches and dances, they were all forms of entertainment to make the King better. That was part of one of his medications. The King needed much humour as well as someone to tend to his bodily needs. Because of our natural talents, we were medicine to cure the King’s ills.
Doing our own performance in the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace and the grounds of the palace itself felt like we were transformed back into 16th- century England and we were actually back in Tudor times. It was the experience of a lifetime and I felt like I wasn’t myself; I was a member of the Tudor court. A lot of people might know about Henry VIII but some might not and the performance we did was a brilliant way of putting over what life was like then in the 16th century.