The Inside Story

LAW & ORDER Lancaster Castle’s Shire Hall complex is the country’s oldest working law court. (Which is why we could only rehearse & play here at night, after the courts had finished for the day). The current Grade I neo-gothic building dates from the early 1800’s. Lancaster Crown Court, when it was the only assize court in Lancashire, sentenced more people to death than any other, apart from the Old Bailey in London. In effect most of those condemned from 1788 – 1850 had their death sentences commuted to transportation to Australia.

MEASURING UP. James Morley appeared in the first Shakespeare production, Richard II (as Bolingbroke) in 2000 as well as the last, the 2010 production of Measure for Measure (as Escalus). Fittingly, he also appeared in the 2001 production of Measure, as the Duke.

DOING TIME HMP Lancaster Castle was Britain’s oldest prison when it finally closed in 2011, having been a jail from when the Normans first built their fortress there, in the ruins of the earlier Roman fort, in the late 11th Century. Prisoners found guilty in crown court were ‘sent down’ the dock steps into the prison next door where they would serve their sentences. In the last post WW2 phase of its existence the castle was a Category C (medium security) establishment housing around 220 inmates. The castle has now been stripped of its 20th century prison fittings & fixtures, and has been restored, refurbished and opened to the public by its owners, the duchy of Lancaster.

ODE TO HAMLET Hamlet was the first production where we used performance space outside the castle. In this case the balcony walkway which links the main castle gatehouse entry (prison gate) with the entrance to Shire Hall (crown courts) at the rear of the building. The play’s two battlement scenes proved incredibly effective for actors and audience alike. Mark Alexander, our lighting designer rigged up lights inside the building to spill out onto the players beneath and Rob Garret’s ghost emerging out of nowhere was a sight to behold. We caused quite a stir and the dialogue must have been heard by inmates and staff alike during those chilly evening rehearsals. The foot patrols of prison officers on their regular rounds would sometimes stop to watch once they got over the shock of discovering us there at first rehearsal. Word clearly got round the general prison community of what we were up to and one day an envelope arrived at rehearsals in mysterious circumstances. This is what that envelope contained, “written next door” & nothing else. Sadly the author remains anonymous. The company were thrilled their efforts had sparked this fine literary riposte….

It wasn’t a good time in Denmark – / Not in Elsinore at least./In suspicious circumstances / Several folk became deceased. Hamlet’s father (also Hamlet) / Was the first to lose his life. / He’d been king. Now brother Claudius / Took his throne and wed his wife. Two guards upon the ramparts/ Doing what guards should do,/ Saw the ghost of ex-king Hamlet / And felt shocked. Well, wouldn’t you? The ghost would only talk to Hamlet -/ Swore that what he said was truth: / He’d been killed by brother Claudius! / What a bombshell for the youth! / Hamlet started feeling angry: / Could the phantom’s claaims be true? / His conduct became most peculiar / Wondering what he should do./ Vowing to avenge his father/ Plans whirled round inside his head. / Ev’y one thought he’d gone crazy – / THEY didn’t know what had been said. / Then his girlfriend, young Ophelia/ (Very nice but rather dim)/ Tried to find out Hamlet’s problem./ What on earth was wrong with him? / She couldn’t help and things got worse:/ Polonius, Ophelia’s Dad / Was stabbed mistakenly, by Hamlet / And Ophelia died, quite mad! / Laertes, her elder brother / Not surprisingly, was cross./ Sister drowned and father murdered? / He’d show Hamlet who was boss! / The duel trhey fought was fatal,/ Not just for the pair concerned: / Hamlet’s mum and bad King Claudius / Also met the fate they’d earned. / Luckily a passing general / Who’d been busy with a war / kindly took the ruling role / And Denmark went on as before.

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS Howard Chadwick appeared in more of our Shakespeare shows than any other actor (8 out of 10 of them in fact). Even more remarkably the redoubtable Howard regularly drove, throughout rehearsal & performance, some 140 miles every round trip, from his home in Glossop to Lancaster.

LIBRARY OF CRIME The Barristers library stands on the site of the medieval crown court, demolished at the end of the 18th Century. This is where the infamous Lancashire or Pendle Witch Trial of 1612 took place during the reign of James I of England (James VI of Scotland), the monarch for whom Shakespeare wrote Macbeth.  

MARRIAGES MADE IN PARADISE. Two young couples that initially met and worked together on our productions subsequently married a few years later. Richard Hand & Gemma North first performed for the company in The Merchant of Venice while Gareth Cassidy and Clare were both introduced via Hamlet.

CELL BY DATE Despite their ‘medieval’ feel, the area in and in front of the cells we utilised for our productions are believed to only date back to 1784 when they were built within the old medieval stable block; set against the curtain wall of the Norman castle that linked the great Keep to Hadrian’s Tower.

KING OR EMPEROR? Although the Romans had a fortified presence on the hill here (Lancaster /Lancastrum /Fort on the River Lune) Emperor Hadrian (he of the famous wall) did not build the tower named after him, though the stone may be recycled from remaining Roman fortifications. King John had it built, in 2010, when a round stone built defensive corner tower like this was very much state of the art. The chains around the wall were used on prisoners bound for Australia. The seats were used for restraint when the castle also functioned as the county’s lunatic asylum.

BY GEORGE George Telfer played Don John in our 2012 production of MAAN and returned three years later as John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster for our royal command performance in May 2015. The key scene from Richard II played for HM The Queen centered on the ‘Scepter’d Isle’ speech that had in turn inspired our company name.  George, on his mother’s side, is a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce, the king of Scotland who laid siege to Lancaster Castle in the 14th century. George had also acted professionally, earlier in his career, with Her Majesty’s youngest son, Prince Edward.