The Mary Roxburghe Trust was delighted to welcome Guildford Shakespeare Company to West Horsley Place for their Sonnet Walk weekend to mark Shakespeare’s birthday. The weekend was a great opportunity for visitors to come to West Horsley Place and enjoy a promenade theatre experience, which we hope will be the first of many performing arts events here. Audience members went on a mystery walking tour of the house and gardens, encountering various shakespearian characters. West Horsley Place has a fascinating history with some events touching quite closely to Shakespeare’s life and works. With this in mind GSC cleverly set about devising performances that could link the history of WHP’s residents to Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.
Their idea was to create 12 scenes around the house, whose characters could all conceivably live in the house together. From porters to maids, gardeners to ghosts, and the ladies and gentlemen that ‘owned’ the house, the characters were given a loose 1930s feel, invoking the atmosphere of the house in its pre-war era.Here’s just a couple of examples of what they created:
Using Sonnets 22 and 25 GSC re-created one of the more extraordinary stories from WHP’s history. After Sir Walter Raleigh was executed in 1618, his head, rather than being put on a spike on London Bridge, was smuggled away to his wife, who embalmed it. West Horsley Place was purchased by Lady Raleigh’s brother in 1643, who died shortly afterwards, bequeathing it to his nephew, Raleigh’s son, Carew Raleigh (who was 13 when his father was executed). Lady Raleigh went on to live at WHP until her death in 1649, and it is said that she carried the bag with her husband’s head in everywhere she went. After her death the head was kept in a cupboard, until her grandsons, also called Walter and Carew, both died in 1660. The head was buried with them in St Mary’s Church across the road from WHP. Legend says that the bag hanging next to the fire place in the Drawing Room was the original bag the head was kept in! A performance was staged in the Drawing Room with GSC’s character being the ‘lady of the house’ talking to the severed head of her beloved before she goes out to a party.
Another character GSC wanted to explore was that of Henry Courtenay. He owned West Horsley Place for a short time and was the cousin and childhood friend of Henry VIII. The King visited WHP in the late 1530s (our Mistress Quickly character in the kitchen a nod to the huge menu created for the King’s visit). However, Courtenay and his wife (who is recorded as singing scurrilous songs in the gardens) were Catholic sympathisers. It is said that in the gardens, Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, came to the house to arrest him. He was executed in 1539. GSC imaginatively transformed Thomas Wolsey’s speech from Henry VIII, after he has just been arrested and is advising his friend Cromwell about the dangers of over reaching one’s ambitions, into a more cynical reaction to his arrest, as if speaking to those arresting him.
GSC also refernenced Macbeth on the walk. This play was written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, and a former WHP owner was actually implicated in the Plot, so it seemed natural to include this somewhere. Following his loyalty to Mary I, Sir Anthony Browne was created First Viscount Montague. Despite falling in and out of favour during Elizabeth’s reign for his Catholic sympathies, when he fell ill in 1592, the Queen came to WHP to visit him. Upon his death, his son became the 2nd Viscount Montague and as a Member of Parliament he was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot and imprisoned in the Tower; the evidence being that he was absent on the day of the intended assassination, along with the fact that Guy Fawkes has once been a footman at WHP. He was later acquitted of all charges in 1611 and died at WHP in 1629.
The ‘Macbeth/Montague’ delivered the “If ’twere done when it is done, then ’twere well it were done quickly” soliloquy from Macbeth in the evocative library.
Alongside characters and speeches related to the history of WHP were other sonnets and characters from the canon. Falstaff from Henry IV/Henry V delivered an hilarious outside one the estate cottages and Maria and Malvolio of Twelfth Night had audience members hiding behind topiary in the walled garden. GSC’s actors were fantastic at bringing these wonderful words to life again, and it was amazing to have almost 400 people experience both Shakespeare and WHP’s hidden history up close: the perfect way to mark Shakespeare’s 454th Birthday. Thank you to everyone who came and to Guildford Shakespeare Company for creating such an imaginative, fun and unique theatre experience.
Photography by Steve Porter Pictures.