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Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds co-produces novelist Philippa Gregory’s first play challenging history’s hatchet job on Richard III

In a council car park in Leicester the Tarmac erupts and out from his long lost grave bursts the figure of the last king of England to die in battle… Richard III.

So begins the first play written by world-renowned historical novelist Philippa Gregory, which premiered in March and is being co-produced by Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds.

But Richard has no idea that for hundreds of years he has been painted as a villain. His illusions are about to be shattered as he comes face to face with the culprit, History - a record keeper whose mind sometimes strays from his task.

Renowned historical novelist Philippa Gregory who has written her first play, Richard, My Richard
Renowned historical novelist Philippa Gregory who has written her first play, Richard, My Richard

The play, Richard, My Richard, which opens in Suffolk on April 11, was inspired when Philippa attended the funeral and reburial of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral in 2015.

Watching the coffin of England’s last Plantagenet king lowered into its final resting place she felt the centuries roll away. “It was a time slip moment,” recalls the novelist and historian, who has written numerous bestselling books.

She was in Leicester contributing to a series of Channel 4 programmes during the week of Richard’s interment, following the dramatic discovery of his body under a car park three years earlier.

Kyle Rowe as Richard III in Philippa Gregory’s Richard, My Richard
Kyle Rowe as Richard III in Philippa Gregory’s Richard, My Richard

The archaeological dig on the site of the old Greyfriars Church, where the king was believed to have been buried, unearthed a skeleton of the right date and age, with battle wounds.

Most significantly it showed the curvature of the spine known to have afflicted Richard. DNA comparisons with a direct descendant of his sister confirmed his identity.

“I attended his funeral as an historian,” said Philippa. “We kept saying among ourselves his character wasn’t going to be rehabilitated and someone should write a play … and in the end I said okay I’ll do it. I’d already written a novel about his wife, Anne Neville, so I had a whole body of research from the period.”

Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Aaron Weight
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Aaron Weight

The play differs from her historical novels in that the central role is a man. She is an authority on the role of women in history and her books, which include The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen, have always focused on a female character.

But the women in Richard’s life are also crucial. “I wanted to write a play about the real Richard and the people - especially the influential women - around him.

“Then the most important character walked into the play - History - who in an absent-minded moment gave us such a dark picture of the king, whose motto was loyalty and whose passion was chivalry.”

“Although the principal character is Richard, the whole thing is how his story has been told and how women have been eliminated from it and how he has been eliminated from it.

“Our history of Richard isn’t about him. People will talk about the Shakespeare play, not him. This is a restoration of him to history.”

In fact most of the blame for the trashing of Richard’s character rests with his portrayal by Shakespeare in his play Richard III. But, Philippa says, that was understandable. Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor, father of Henry VIII and grandfather to Elizabeth I.

Tom Kanji as History
Tom Kanji as History

“Shakespeare had his reasons. His ultimate patron was the Tudor court. He had a job to do – blackening the name of Richard without blackening the name of Queen Elizabeth’s ancestor.

“I found the whole process of writing the play very enjoyable. I started for my own pleasure then as I came close to finishing it I thought this is good, I think I will take it to other people.

“I approached various theatres about putting it on. It was a very chequered process with a lot of theatres liking it but not able to fit it into their schedules.”

Bury-based Jennifer Matter who plays Queen
Bury-based Jennifer Matter who plays Queen

The play found a home with Shakespeare North, a new 17th century-style playhouse on Merseyside, in partnership with the Theatre Royal, where it will run for just over two weeks.

“I came to Theatre Royal when I knew we were going to be partnering,” said Philippa. “I was tremendously excited by the charm of it. They are converting the theatre in the round for the performances.”

She is the first new author to have a play staged at Shakespeare North, where it opened in early March, and was delighted by its reception.

Tom Kanji as History and Kyle Rowe as Richard III
Tom Kanji as History and Kyle Rowe as Richard III

“We have had a wonderful run with full houses nearly every night. I was there for the first six nights,” she said.

Sitting in the audience she found the performances so mesmerising she was unable to view it with an author’s analytical eye.

“I was looking at it from the outside rather than the inside. To the credit of the actors I couldn’t sit and take notes, I just got absolutely absorbed. It’s very fast paced. There are two battles in it, but it isn’t military history.

She stresses that the Richard she depicts is her interpretation, because no-one can know everything about him and never will. But she has countered the dark portrayal which has persisted since Shakespeare penned his version.

Her play will also have a very special permanent place in a royal residence. Philippa was one of the authors invited by Queen Camilla to contribute to a new collection of miniature books to celebrate the centenary of Queen Mary’s Dolls House Library, at Windsor Castle.

She chose to submit the first scene of Richard, My Richard, handwriting the lines on tiny pages which were then bound in red goatskin and gold leaf.

Philippa Gregory’s career as a novelist began in the 1980s and took off at amazing speed. But growing up she would not have imagined history would play such a huge part in her life.

She has been described as something of a rebel at school, but wonders if that is really the right word. “I was just one of those kids that didn’t fit well into the mould, although I think I was quite bright.”

She did A-levels in English, history and geography.

“I enjoyed English but the way history was taught at school in those days was very dull. We did the wars of the Emperor Justinian in Europe - what is less likely to interest young women?

“I was very interested in social justice, very green, a green campaigner and against apartheid in sport. I was chair of the United Nations Association Youth Group and involved in charity work.

“I went to journalism college and served my apprenticeship on the Portsmouth News group and that took me to Sussex. Then I went to do a degree at Sussex University. History at Sussex absolutely blew my head off.

“There was an incredibly inspirational tutor and I fell in love with history in a most profound and life changing way.

“Since then I have always worked in history in some way,” she says, adding that she feels the curriculum in the subject in schools today still doesn’t reflect the interests of young women.

Philippa went from Sussex to Edinburgh to do a PhD in 18th century literature. “I was Interested in how people wrote fantasies about real life in England to comfort themselves,” she says.

It was then that she began a journey that would make her a household name. “As I was finishing my PhD I started a novel called Wideacre.

“It focused on how if you were a girl you didn’t get to inherit the family land. It was an immediate bestseller, I’ve had an extraordinary career trajectory.

“I was very, very lucky. I was writing at a time when all publishers thought it was a time for renewing the historical novel, which was drifting towards romance.

“I became a trailblazer - I never intended to, I just happened to do it. There was a wave and I caught it.”

In 2016, Philippa was presented with the Outstanding Contribution to Historical Fiction Award by the Historical Writers’ Association.

But her most recent book is non-fiction. “Last year I published Normal Women - 900 Years Of Making History, a history of women of England from 1066 to 1994.

“It involved a huge amount of research but because I enjoy it so much I didn’t begrudge it at all.”

She is now beginning another novel, but can only reveal that it is set in Tudor times.

In 2020 Philippa was made a CBE for services to literature and charity.

She set up the charity Gardens for The Gambia more than 30 years ago after visiting the country to carry out research on the slave trade for her novel A Respectable Trade.

“The head of a primary school asked if I would give them money towards a well in the school yard. I thought it was such a neat little brilliant scheme that I paid for the whole well.

Then the next door school said, will she do one for us, so I set up a charity and took in funds and contributed myself. There are now 250 wells, one in every primary school in The Gambia.

Owen Calvert-Lyons, artistic director of Theatre Royal Bury said, “Philippa Gregory is an extraordinary writer. Generations of readers have discovered the history of our country through her writing.

“Philippa has a great skill in humanising historical characters, allowing us to understand their world and their choices. Now she is taking on one of history’s most notorious villains and inviting us to reassess what we know, or think we know, about him.

“We will be transforming our auditorium ‘in the round’ with seating on the stage, providing audiences in Bury with a new theatre experience.

“We couldn’t be prouder to be producing Richard, My Richard with Shakespeare North Playhouse.

“While Shakespeare North Playhouse is not yet two years old, its origins, like Theatre Royal Bury, are steeped in culture and history.

Shakespeare North was inspired by the only purpose-built playhouse outside of London, which stood in Prescot in the 1590s.

Theatre Royal Bury is itself a historic building. Designed and built-in 1819 by William Wilkins, it is the last remaining Regency playhouse in the country.

These two leading regional producing houses were brought together by renowned theatre producer Daniel Schumann. It was Dan who first approached Philippa Gregory with his vision to transfer her writing, with its flair for blending history and imagination, on to the stage.

Bury-born Jennifer Matter, cast as Queen in the play, moved back to her home town five years ago - but her last performance at Theatre Royal was as a teenager in 1999.

She honed her skills with Suffolk Young People’s Theatre and the Irving Stage Company before moving to London to study acting, going on to a varied career in theatre, film and TV including roles in EastEnders and the BAFTA award-winning comedy People Just Do Nothing.

“To be able to bring Philippa’s exceptional work to life with such a wonderful director, cast and crew is a career highlight. It's such a privilege to play the Queen in this production and to be back on the stage in my home town is an utter joy,” she said.

The play’s director, Katie Posner, said, “I am delighted to be directing Philippa Gregory’s debut play. She is a remarkable writer whose perspective is so beautifully emotive, layered and deeply human.

“Throughout Richard, My Richard, Philippa presents a conscious counterpoint to Shakespeare's Tudor propaganda narrative and opens up the story with the biggest question of all. What happens when History has made its decision and the written accounts are closed!”

Richard, My Richard is on at Theatre Royal from Thursday until April 27, with performances from Tuesdays to Saturdays.

For more information and to book go to theatreroyal.org/events/richard-my-richard/

Philippa will lead post-show discussions on April 18 following the matinée and April 25 after the evening performance.