John Blanke and Henry VIII are granted a chance to review their relationship and make their case to us, the audience, for how they wish to be remembered.
I was delighted to be invited to the Vault Theatre East Belfast to see Terra Nova Productions ‘prototype’ – more on that later - performance of The Trumpet & The King written and directed by Andrea Montgomery the Company’s Artistic Director.
The production creates its narrative landscape in a novel way, one in which an imagined relationship between John Blanke and Henry VIII moves freely from being equals at one moment to servant and king in another as they exchange memories from the years 1492 to 1511.
This is an intercultural play in which John and Henry have the opportunity to reflect on how their very different origins and status helped create the men they were – John born into Islamic Spain to be converted to Christianity, Henry the king’s second son finds himself marrying his dead elder brother’s wife and becoming king. Each reveal how they want to be remembered to the other and to the audience.
They delve back into their memories as they meet and embody a range of characters who were important to them including Henry VII, Katherine of Aragon and Wat Chandler – the jealous English trumpeter.
Henry is played by Sam Claridge; Sam plays the part very sympathetically moving effortlessly from the hurt, vulnerable teenager to the powerful man. John Blanke is played by Corey Mantague-Sholay; Corey brings an engaging wit and charm to the role creating a very likeable, intelligent sensitive character born in Islamic Spain coming to terms with life Christian England. The production’s lighting and music function like a narrator helping the audience re-imagine characters as well as scenes from the Spanish and the English courts.
Terra Nova has an intercultural mission. The Trumpet & The King, through the many twists and turns of its story, examines many of the contested cultural interfaces that exist today - Islam and Christianity, black and white ethnicity, immigrant and indigenous identity – in doing so perhaps helping us better understand and relate to one another.
I enjoyed they play for two reasons. First it was good play, well dramatised and acted; as was said by Glen McGivern on Twitter there was the right ‘mix of lightness and intensity’. Second, I believe it exemplified the John Blanke Project’s strapline – Imagine the Black Tudor trumpeter. This strapline was made manifest as The Trumpet & The Kingimagined how John and Henry might have related to each other. This is exactly what the Project is all about: what the poet John Agard called ‘filling in the blanks’, from the little we know from the court record, to help give a better understanding of John and his relationship to Henry.
I was particularly pleased to see John and Henry making music together as one of my imaginings is the two jamming together, albeit with John, the professional musician, obliged by circumstance to deferentially allow his amateur musician king to take centre stage. The play hinted at the challenge of this for an artist.
The Trumpet & The King was a very different play from the other John Blanke play I’ve seen – Ade Solanke’s The Court Must Have a Queen directed by Sam Curtis Lindsay in the Great Hall at Hampton Court , which I reviewed here. The Trumpet & The King centred on character development while the other was all about the plot, that difference was reflected in the staging. Because of its prototype status, The Trumpet & The King was modest, with few props and a cast of two, test performed in an unheated temporarily occupied building, in inner East Belfast. But this allowed us to focus on the characters as they revealed their personalities and relationship, while The Court Must Have a Queen was lavish – a costume drama - set in the wonderful Great Hall of Hampton Court with a much larger cast with a plot that was followed via the characters and their interactions.
Andrea Montgomery tells me that this prototyping is: ‘an essential part of making professional theatre truly intercultural, of power-sharing to engage her community in every step of the creative journey.’ The community have been involved since before the creation of the first draft of the piece, exploring themes and suggesting themes. Andrea invites community and audience participation in those developments thru workshops, readings and after show Q&As, several of which I was invited to take part in. I would argue in its current form, the script is complete, as it allows us to see John and Henry as distinct personalities and how their relationship develops over time. She says that piece will improve from the feedback: that prototyping allows the testing of set, light and sound as well as dialogue, but it seems to me that the process of open discussion is as important to her as the effect.
I am enthusiastic about this version; I look forward with even more enthusiasm to see The Trumpet & The King’s ‘premier’ version which is promised for March 2023.
I want to thank Andrea, Remi and Clinton as well as Sam & Corey for making my visit to Belfast and seeing the play such a memorable and brilliant experience.
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