The Norwich Players
The Guild of Norwich Players began in 1911 as a company of eight amateur actors under the direction of Walter Nugent Bligh Monck. Monck had settled in Norwich at the age of 33 following a successful career in a variety of experimental London theatres. Monck chose and directed all the plays himself and his company first performed in the drawing room of his rented home in Ninham’s Court. There was room for a small stage and an audience of about seventy people. Their popularity was such that a larger space was required and the Players moved to the Music House in King Street, owned by the Crown Brewery. It was at this time that the Players’ emblem, depicting the chanticleer of St Peter was designed. During the First World War, the Players disbanded but returned to the Music House to perform again after the war ended. Monck had always aspired towards having an Elizabethan style theatre, worthy of staging Shakespeare’s plays and the search for the present building began. The conversion of the Roman Catholic Chapel, into a working theatre took six weeks and in September 1921 a production of ‘As You Like It’ opened to great acclaim.
The group had by then extended in its number of actors. Regular meetings were held and existing members elected new people to join. By this time women were also allowed to become Players! A small Trust was formed to administer the theatre and its properties, in the event that there should be any need for redistribution. The Norwich Players frequently performed Shakespeare and by 1933 Monck had achieved his ambition for the company to perform the complete canon of Shakespeare’s work (thirty seven plays) under the same roof. Nugent Monck was a formidable man, creating rules for his actors that involved remaining anonymous. There were no curtain calls and actors were not named in the programme. They were expected to play minor roles for at least three years during a period of ‘training’ and to volunteer to work backstage or front-of-house as well as to act. Players were also prohibited from acting in other amateur theatre company productions. In 1952 Monck gave the theatre, its properties and the site to the Trust for a payment of £700 and a ground rent of £500 per year as a pension for his retirement and the Maddermarket Theatre Trust Limited was formed. This was a committee of Players, with an agreed constitution who elected a board of trustees to become responsible for managing the theatre. There have been a number of Artistic Directors and Directors of Production since Monck’s retirement, one of whom, Ian Emmerson, matched Monck’s 31 years tenure. Since then, Artistic Directors have been in post for a limited number of years, following a decision to keep the theatre alive with fresh ideas from regularly changing directors. The same system exists today. New Players are elected by existing Players and the Trustees are also elected by the Players. The theatre is managed by a small paid staff and an army of volunteers on whom it depends heavily, not only for acting but also for directing some shows, managing the box office, front of house, stewarding and all the back stage work involved in bringing a production to the stage.
In 2011, the Players celebrated their centenary and a book, ‘100 years’ (the story of the Norwich Players and the creation of the Maddermarket Theatre’) written by David Newham, Neville Miller and Pat Barr is available to purchase in the theatre. It contains a very comprehensive history of both the company of Players and theatre itself. The information written here is taken from that book.
The Maddermarket Ghost
It is alleged Nugent Monck was heard to say that ‘every theatre worthy of its name should have its own ghost’ and he himself was reputed to be the first person to see the ghost of a monk. The original theatre building retained confessional boxes from the old Roman Catholic chapel and the director saw a monk (not in his cast) walk from one of these to another across the stage, during a rehearsal. There was nobody in the box afterwards! The ghost has been sighted, or its presence felt, on any number of occasions since that time. The monk is reported to haunt the alleyway that runs alongside the theatre, the theatre courtyard as well as the building itself. It has also moved costumes, hidden wigs and jammed or opened doors from time to time. It does not appear to be malicious in any way; on the contrary, it has rescued a young actress from a falling light fitting and on another occasion, hugged an actor who had forgotten his lines and helped him to recover himself.
These anecdotes have been taken from ‘Haunted Norwich’ by David Chisnell. For more stories about the Maddermarket ghost, look to the book or better still, visit the theatre. There is bound to be a member of the theatre staff on site who will have a tale to tell.
The Maddermarket Theatre opened its doors to the public for the first time as a theatre in September 1921, the exterior of the oldest part of the building remaining the same today as it was then. It was originally a Roman Catholic Chapel, which became a hostel and finally a warehouse. It was discovered, derelict and abandoned and was purchased by Walter Nugent Bligh Monck, the founder of The Norwich Players. Monck recognised the wonderful acoustic quality of the building, caused by the domed vaulted ceiling. This was his main consideration for his band of amateur actors. The building stands on the site of the medieval market where the scarlet dye called 'madder' was sold during the times of woollen trading. The area had therefore been called the Maddermarket in the thirteenth century. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 brought the threat of closure to all theatres but fortunately the government ban was revoked and the Maddermarket continued to produce a full season of plays in spite of many of the more experienced actors being called up or involved in other war-related work. Norwich was bombed in the spring of 1942 but fortunately the theatre suffered no structural damage; however, clear up operations in the city necessitated one cancellation – the only one during the war years. The building itself has undergone several changes to accommodate larger audiences and give greater flexibility in staging productions. A project to extend the auditorium was launched in 1948 along with refitting the warehouse, scene dock and front-of-house. This was completed in 1953. In 1964 an ambitious plan was developed, to extend the theatre building to provide it with the existing foyer and bar area, along with new cloakrooms, a much larger wardrobe and a rehearsal room. In 1990, the proscenium arch stage was extended to give an extra seven and a half feet of acting area out into the auditorium. By realigning the gangways, almost no audience capacity was lost and sightlines were greatly improved. Since that time, there have been no major refurbishments, except in the dressing rooms and bar area but new possibilities are frequently considered, to accommodate changing needs and trends.
In 1599 Will Kemp, actor, jester and friend of William Shakespeare, morris-danced from London to Norwich. It is said that he undertook the journey having been turned down by Shakespeare for the role of the clown in Hamlet. Kemp wrote an account of his journey called 'Nine Daies Wonder'. The journey actually took him twenty-three days.
'Satterday no sooner came but I returned without the citty through Saint Giles his gate, and beganne my Morrice where I left at that gate, but I entred in at Saint Stephens gate, where one Thomas Gilbert in name of all the rest of the cittizens gave me a friendly and exceeding kind welcome'.
This was Will Kemp's poem that he wrote for his welcome to Norwich -
W With hart, and hand, among the rest,
E Especially you welcome are:
L Long looked for as welcome guest,
C Come now at last you be from farre.
O Of most within the citty, sure,
M Many good wishes you haue had;
E Each one did pray you might indure,
W With courage good the match you made.
I Intend they did with gladsome hearts,
L Like your well willers, you to meete:
K Know you also they'l doe their parts,
E Eyther in field or house to greete
M More you then any with you came,
P Procur'd thereto with rump and fame.
There is a plaque on the wall of the Theatre in St. John's Alley marking the place where kemp ended his journey. To celebrate he said to have jumped over the wall of the St. John Maddermarket Church.
Other websites containing information about the Maddermarket Theatre and Norwich Players -
East Anglian film Archive - the Theatre features briefly in this 1961 film (at 09:17)