Shakespeare at Chilham Castle

Chilham Castle showing the courtyard and grassy area where the audience will be seated

Chilham Castle showing the courtyard and grassy area where the audience will be seated - Credit: Archant

Four performances of Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona will be part of a weekend of activities at Chilham Castle, celebrating 400 years of interlinked history between the castle and the Bard, which will include the historical Chilham Chase Race.

Costumed runners and onlookers enjoy the sunshine in May 2013, when the first Chilham Chase was held

Costumed runners and onlookers enjoy the sunshine in May 2013, when the first Chilham Chase was held by the Wheelers - Credit: Archant

Two special anniversaries will be celebrated at Chilham Castle this year; not only is it the castle’s own 400th birthday, but it is also the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, with whom the castle has strong links.

Chilham Castle’s connections to the Bard run deep; its first owner, the pioneering diplomat, politician and entrepreneur Sir Dudley Digges, who built the house between 1612 and 1616, was an associate of the playwright, while his uncle Leonard Digges wrote a preface for the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works.

The wrecking of the Sea Venture on the shores of Bermuda in 1609 – a financial disaster for Virginia adventurer Dudley, one of the financiers of the voyage – is thought to have inspired the plot for The Tempest. And Dudley’s stepfather, Thomas Russell, was the overseer for Shakespeare’s will, in which he famously bequeathed his “second best bed” to his wife. Other links between Dudley Digges and Shakespeare centre on Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, patron of a group of actors at The Globe playhouse.

Leicester’s tutor was the mathematician, astronomer and astrologer to the Queen, Dr John Dee, whose writings might have inspired London’s first theatre and possible progenitor of the Globe. Dr Dee was tutor to Dudley’s father Thomas Digges, one of Leicester’s protégés.

Another great name linked with Chilham for centuries was Inigo Jones who, before emerging as Architect Generall to the King, was impresario of theatrical productions for the royal court.

Chilham’s reputed connection with this prestigious designer of playhouses and palaces has been cherished by successive owners of the castle. The Jacobean building, built within sight of the Old Castle (the keep), was completed in 1616 for Sir Dudley Digges on a hexagonal plan, with five angled ranges and the sixth left open.

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It has battlemented parapets, clustered faceted brick chimneys and corner towers with squared ogee cappings. All the main rooms face south-west, west or south and only the front faces east; the north-facing back rooms are rarely used and the centre of the house lines up with Canterbury Cathedral.

With such a shared significance of dates and links, it seems only fitting that the Globe Theatre on Tour has chosen to open its national tour of what is believed to be the Bard’s first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, at Chilham Castle, where it will be performed outdoors over the weekend of 20-22 May against the beautiful backdrop of the castle and its grounds.

To add further significance, there are also distinct architectural similarities between the Globe Theatre’s design and the castle’s hollow-core polygon, which will help make the visiting actors feel very much at home.

Chilham Chase 400

It seems that Sir Dudley Digges had the foresight to plan this celebratory weekend 400 years ago. The Chilham Chase was his bequest, stating that the castle should host a race, each May, for ‘Gentlemen and Maidens of good character from Chilham and surrounding parishes’ with a prize of £10.

In honour of Sir Dudley, the Chilham Chase 400 will take place on 21 May at 1.30pm and in a nice bit of inflation, the winning team will receive £100. The 2.5 mile fun run incorporates fancy dress, jumping horse hurdles, a sack race and much more. There will also be a prize for the best costume. Entries will cost £10 per team of two members up, the only rules being that all team members must start and finish together.

So whether your preference is theatre or running around the grounds of the castle in fancy dress, there’s something for everyone.

Do listen out at 11am on 22 May, as Sir Dudley also directed that the Chilham church bells should be rung in celebration of his birthday.

The Play

The premiere of the new touring production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at Chilham Castle will be the first touring show under the new Artistic Directorship of Emma Rice.

Believed to have been written between 1589 and 1593, it is considered to be Shakespeare’s first play and often seen as showing his first tentative steps in laying out themes and motifs with which he would later deal in more detail; for example, it is the first of his plays in which a heroine dresses as a boy and the playwright tackles the conflict between friendship and love.

It will be directed by Nick Bagnall, who has directed several productions at The Globe and is looking to create a new, anarchic version of the play with a focus on music of the period.

Chilham Castle today

Tessa Wheeler and her husband Stuart have been the owners of Chilham Castle since 2002 and spent their first three years here undertaking a complete renovation from roof to cellar.

The couple, who are extremely sociable, have three grown-up daughters and fill the house most weekends with not only family and close friends but guests from many different strands of society.

It is no surprise that they love to share their house and garden for events large and small, from their own equestrian and Garden Open Days to weddings, conferences or balls.

I spoke to Tessa Wheeler just a few weeks before one of their most ambitious projects reached its climax in May, with the honour of being the premier site for The Globe on Tour and also staging its own 400th special – the Chilham Chase.

The latter has been held only once before in their ownership, in 2013, which they are extremely relieved about now as it gives them a platform to work on for this year. The involvement of The Globe Theatre came about quite by chance when Tessa and Stuart were invited to a performance there two summers ago by a friend who happened to be a patron of The Globe.

Seizing the moment, the indomitable Tessa suggested The Globe came down to Chilham for ‘their’ weekend in May 2016 and managed to secure an introduction to executive producer Tom Bird, who duly visited the castle and loved what he saw.

“Then there was a very long time of waiting while they got a new artistic director in place,” explains Tessa. “We didn’t dare push too hard, but finally got confirmation in mid November 2015 so we had to start really motoring.”

One of the biggest challenges was seating as the ground in front of the courtyard has a slight slope. After a mock-up involving all their chairs from the castle cellars and Tessa standing on a table to mimic the height of the stage (see right), they realised tiered seating was essential so that every audience member would get a good view.

There will be just over 500 in the tiers and 70 premium seats grouped around the stage, but no Groundlings (a groundling was a person who frequently visited the Globe Theatre in the early 17th century.

They were too poor to pay to be able to sit on one of the three levels of the theatre, but by paying one penny, they could stand in ‘the pit’ or ‘yard’ just below the stage to watch the play.)

Programme of events

20 May

7pm: Opening performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

21 May

10am: Gates open. Stalls, musicians, food and drink

1.30pm: The Chilham Chase

7pm: Performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Please note that the stage area and the auditorium will be closed between 4.30-6pm for rehearsal time.

22 May

11am: Service in Chilham Church. Followed by a peal of bells to celebrate Dudley Digges birthday.

1pm: Performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

6pm: Final performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Find out more

Chilham Castle, Chilham, nr Canterbury CT4 8DB.

Canterbury Festival

Canterbury Festival marketing manager Rachel Pilard is helping the Wheelers with their ambitious project. She told Kent Life: “When Chilham received confirmation that The Globe would be coming to the Castle, they were keen to receive guidance from a local event management team and we were delighted to offer our support.

“We have been helping the Castle with the event’s marketing and logistics over the last few months. Our fantastic team of Festival volunteers have also kindly agreed to assist with front of house for the four performances, to ensure the smooth running of the shows.

“We are absolutely delighted to be working on this project and to celebrate Chilham Castle’s anniversary with Tessa and her team.”