March 24, 2016, by Charlotte Anscombe
A new literary play by a Nottingham academic explores witchcraft trials
The world-premiere of a play written by Brean Hammond, Emeritus Professor in the School of English, will take place at St Andrews’ Byre Theatre, St Andrews, in Fife this week.
Noted playwright and Nottingham academic Professor Hammond, has written Ben and Jamie, which combines real events from the era to create a thriller involving witchcraft, King James VI, a poisoning and the poet Ben Jonson’s legendary walk from London to Edinburgh in 1618. The play will also highlight the 400th anniversary of drama being recognised as a literary art.
The play marks the long awaited return of Professor Hammond to writing his own dramatic works after a prestigious academic career in English literature.
It also coincides with a key conference being held at the University of St Andrews to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of Jonson’s first Folio of Works in 1616, making theatrical entertainment into a permanent literary form and paving the way for the celebrated Shakespeare Folio of 1623.
Professor Hammond’s play presents a new solution to the Rutland witchcraft case of 1619-20, with Ben Jonson playing the detective. Thematically, it examines a world dominated by conspiracy and religious conflict. Shakespeare is an offstage character whose relationship with Jonson becomes a running theme in the play.
Professor Hammond said: “The inspiration for the play came from the fact I can see Belvoir Castle from my back garden. I wanted to write a play set in and around Belvoir Castle, that presents a new and different view of the witch hangings associated with the Rutland family.
“Two of the Flower women were executed as witches on a patch of ground outside Lincoln Castle. But also, it was recently discovered that Jonson on his long walk stayed for three days in Belvoir Castle. I have long wanted to write a play that explores Jonson as a character, and this new scholarship offered me an appropriate creative stimulus.”
Peter Sutton of the School of English at the University of St Andrews, who is directing the play, said: “It is a great delight working on such a wonderful new play as Ben and Jamie. The Byre Studio lends itself extremely well to this very intimate play, and I’m also delighted that the actors will be wearing stunning costumes courtesy of the Scottish Opera wardrobe. I hope that this very accessible play will be of interest both to Jonson scholars and to anyone who is interested in the politics of theatre alike.”
The play explores questions of witchcraft, conspiracy, religion, the theatre, Scottish and English union, and the theatre practices of Jonson and his great rival Shakespeare.
The conference will also offer delegates the chance to view the University of St Andrews’ Rare Books Collection’s copy of Jonson’s first Folio.