Research Case Study

Impact: Bringing history to life at the Palace

Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Shakespeare all starred in the playlets created by Dr Elizabeth Kuti

  • Tagged under

    Digital, creative and cultural

  • Lead Academic

    Dr Elizabeth Kuti

History suddenly erupted around visitors to Hampton Court Palace in the summer of 2016 with help from award-winning playwright Dr Elizabeth Kuti.

Visitors eavesdropped on the intrigues around Anne Boleyn, found themselves behind the scenes with Shakespeare himself in rehearsals for Hamlet and ventured into the Court of King George II.

Dr Kuti, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Centre for Theatre Studies, created the sequence of playlets for Encounters with the Past as writer-in-residence at Hampton Court - working with an outstanding creative team including directors and actors drawn from the UK’s leading theatre companies.

Sometimes the scenes were stumbled on, at other times events exploded into the rooms where they would have originally taken place.

The lively, authentic dialogue Dr Kuti created helped visitors understand the stories of the monarchs, courtiers and servants who once inhabited the palace, the wider sweep of history and their own place within it.

As Dr Kuti points out, theatre can be incredibly powerful in contexts where you might not expect it.

“Theatre in a museum or heritage site can do something different. It can bring beautiful language, and it can bring argument and interpretation in a different way – and it can access the emotions and go to some more hidden areas,”
Dr Elizabeth Kuti Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies

The play's the thing

Dr Kuti's playlet about Shakespeare had particular resonance as it was performed in a space he would have been familiar with.

“It is the actual physical space where Shakespeare himself performed, and his company the Kings Men,” she said. “It’s not a replica like the Globe – it’s the actual space in all its glory, pretty much as it was in Shakespeare’s day. I love the idea of Hamlet at Hampton Court Palace and the possibility of King James watching an actor play a king, watching an actor play a king… all those reflecting mirrors get even more intricate when you think of Hamlet being performed to the king and the court… holding a mirror up to nature…”

Rehearsals at Hampton Court Palace)
Rehearsals at Hampton Court Palace

Creating memories and experiences

Dr Kuti admits that writing for incredibly popular venues such as Hampton Court Palace poses particular challenges.

“You are creating memories and experiences for people that they may never forget. And you are playing for thousands and thousands of people," she explained. "And you are trying to awaken a sense of fascination and awe about time, and history, and the ghosts of the long-dead, and to muse on what it means to be a king. And what power means.

"The whole ‘performative’ aspect of monarchy is fascinating to me. And then I also want a political awareness in the work – it’s not an unquestioning ‘celebration’ of our ‘heritage’ – I think we have to ask deeper questions and be more critical. But the first step is to awaken interest – and delight. Then the rest can follow.”

Christmas with Queen Elizabeth I

As part of her year-long residency, Dr Kuti also wrote a seasonal family tale set at the court of Queen Elizabeth I and performed around Hampton Court Palace from the Tudor Kitchens to the Great Hall over the Christmas and New Year period.

All this followed on from the success of TimePlays she created in 2015, which was the centre piece of the public programme celebrating Hampton Court Palace’s 500th anniversary this year. The specially-commissioned site-specific micro-dramas were performed throughout the site between April and September when the palace had more than 400,000 visitors.

The plays received incredibly positive feedback with 97% of visitors saying their visit had been significantly enhanced by TimePlays and 87% saying they were more likely to recommend a visit to Hampton Court Palace having seen TimePlays.