In a small area of rural Kent in England, any mention of the Sir William Courtenay can still excite great passion, even two centuries after the man's death. In 1838, he led a rebellion of the working classes which culminated in the last battle to be fought on English soil, the battle of Bosenden (or Bossenden) Wood. The descendants of those who fought in the battle (on both sides) still hold strong opinions of the man and what he stood for, and others in the area (centred on Boughton-Under-Blean and Dunkirk) continue to find him a fascinating character.
In 1998, Christopher Neame and Ethan Lewis Maltby began work on a musical version of Courtenay's story, which led to well-received productions in various locations in Kent during 2002 and 2003.
Following the making of a demo CD in 1999, Courtenay was first performed in a concert version in 2000, and a fully-staged production was mounted in the outdoor venue of Strode Park in Herne during the summer of 2002. The show featured professional actors and singers in the lead roles with an ensemble cast (portraying a variety of labourers, artisans and landowners) of local actors, singers and dancers, many of them from the performing arts courses of Canterbury College. The show ran for several hours and was blessed with fine weather until the curtain call of the final performance.
Extensive rewrites were made during the months that followed, streamlining the show by removing the character of Tupenny Sal (a whore) and the story of Courtenay's winning over of the middle classes, thereby concentrating more on the labourers who formed the core of his supporters. A new cast and director were recruited (though one of the principals - Lindsey Mack who played Captain Townsend - and a number of the ensemble remained), and plans were made for a three-engagement tour of venues in Kent. One of these engagements was cancelled when the theatre (Margate's Theatre Royal) flooded, but the other two engagements - in Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre and Sevenoaks' Stag Theatre went ahead in July 2003.
The future of the musical is now uncertain, but it is hoped that it will continue to be performed.
The librettist, Christopher Neame, researched the historical facts of the story carefully, but some dramatic licence was inevitably taken. For example, the name of one of the minor characters was changed from John Mears to Joseph Mears in order to avoid confusion with another John - the real name of Sir William Courtenay. Nicholas Mears' relationship with Sarah Culver is also an invention of the show1. This plot summary concerns the second produced version of the show.
It is 1832, and the labouring classes in Canterbury are discontent with their lot in life, especially in light of the growing use of machinery (which is depriving many of them of a living). A stranger - Sir William Courtenay, Knight of Malta - appears and promises to run for parliament in their name, bringing about a better world for all people. Some of them are won over, but the landowners and other establishment figures are wary of him. Captain Townsend warns him not to upset the status quo.
One of those won over by Courtenay is Sarah Culver, whose childhood sweetheart, Nicholas Mears, is afraid that Courtenay will cause more trouble than the change which he promises to bring about will be worth. She is among Courtenay's supporters at the next parliamentary election, but (largely due to the working class lacking the right to vote) he gains very few votes and inevitably loses to the Whigs.
He is not deterred by this setback and goes about producing a broadsheet, 'The Lion', to attack injustice in its various forms. Later, Courtenay comes to the aid of a gentleman attacked by a footpad, and he also appears as a witness at the trial of some local fishermen accused of smuggling. However, he makes a false statement while under oath and Captain Townsend is able to carry out the wishes of the Mayor and the landowners and have Courtenay arrested for perjury. His supporters demonstrate outside the jail, and are on the verge of a riot when Sarah Culver arrives with the gentleman Courtenay had saved from mugging - this gentleman pays the bail money and Courtenay is released, to the delight of his followers.
At the summer assizes2, Courtenay is tried and found guilty of perjury. The sentence is to be three months' imprisonment followed by deportation - the rich have silenced him. At the trial, it becomes apparent that Sarah Culver's feelings for Courtenay have blossomed into love, and she has broken trust with Nicholas Mears.
The situation is complicated by the arrival of a woman from Cornwall named Katherine Tom, who claims that Sir William is actually John Tom, her husband (who has been suffering from a mental disorder). Once this is verified, the sentence of deportation is annulled and Courtenay, refusing to acknowledge that he has ever met Mrs. Tom, is sent instead to a lunatic asylum.
After several years as a model inmate, Courtenay is released and, incensed by the ever-increasing decadence of the rich, rallies his followers around him once more. Convinced that Courtenay is the son of God, they gather makeshift weapons and prepare to do battle. The landowners insist that Courtenay must be brought in, and Captain Townsend takes a warrant for his arrest to the local constable, Joseph Mears; this warrant is taken instead by Nicholas Mears, Joe's younger brother. When they arrive at Sarah Culver's farm (where Courtenay and his supporters are camped), Courtenay refuses to come with them and engages Townsend in a sword fight, killing him and then shooting Mears at point-blank range. Sarah finally sees the danger of the man, and the militia are brought out to confront Courtenay and his followers.
As the militia approach, Courtenay's followers panic but are calmed by Courtenay, who is able to gain a temporary advantage over the militia when they arrive. He is, however, soon wounded. Courtenay's followers charge the militia, but are beaten back, many of them killed or injured, with hardly a scratch incurred by the militia. Courtenay himself, still believing in his own divinity, is cut down by a hail of bullets as he surveys the devastation.
Courtenay's cast consists of six principal roles, various other small character roles and a large ensemble, who portray various people.
Sir William Courtenay - a charismatic man, fighting for the underdog on behalf of his God. Or, possibly, John Nichols Tom, a man suffering from a mental disorder which caused him to act very uncharacteristically.3 Or perhaps he is a conman or troublemaker, deliberately leading the working classes astray. Whatever the truth, Courtenay is a dynamic figure who inspires others to follow him and doesn't give up, no matter what happens to him.
Sarah Culver - a local girl who is all but engaged to Nicholas Mears, Sarah falls for Courtenay's charms, first politically and then romantically. She is idealistic and headstrong, clashing both with Captain Townsend and Katherine Tom.
Nicholas Mears - a young local man who is deeply in love with Sarah Culver. He believes in Courtenay's ideals in principle but is rightly concerned that his attitude may just make things worse for the working classes.
Captain Townsend - the marshal of the city of Canterbury, who loathes everything that Courtenay stands for. Described by Courtenay as 'very English', Townsend likes things to be 'just so' and doesn't appreciate it when the ordered world of his city is upset.
Katherine Tom - Courtenay's estranged wife4. She loves her husband dearly and is frustrated that she cannot get through to him, except for one brief moment before he prepares for battle.
Everyman - initially known as 'The Man in Red', Everyman appears in a variety of roles in the show (the returning officer at the election, a courtroom official, a prison warden and the like) and also provides essential narration to explain points such as how Courtenay is discovered to have committed perjury.
The Mayor - appears on stage quite frequently with other rich people, but only has two lines to himself. The mayor is, if anything, even more concerned with maintaining the status quo than Captain Townsend is.
Footpad - either a genuine criminal or someone put up to the job by Courtenay to give him an opportunity to act the hero, the Footpad is trounced by Courtenay after attempting a mugging and sent on his way.
George Denne - a gentleman, who is the footpad's intended victim. He is so grateful to Courtenay for saving him that he provides the bail money when Sir William is arrested.
Constable - the man who arrests Courtenay for perjury.
Joseph Mears - elder brother of Nicholas, and constable in 18385. He is persuaded by his younger brother not to go after Courtenay, as he has a family to look after. This means that he then has to bury his brother, who is killed doing what should have been his job.
The ensemble play various roles, and, in both staged versions of the show so far, have had to double up to a certain extent. This was particularly true in the first version, when three distinct groups - labourers, landowners and artisans, were represented. The roles taken on by the ensemble (some of whom also played some of the 'Other Characters' above) in the second version are as follows:
Labourers - almost always the largest ensemble presence on stage, the poor working class people who become Courtenay's followers.
Landowners - including a clergyman and his wife, among others - the rich people of the area who oppose Courtenay.
Stallholders and Circus Performer - these appear just before Courtenay's trial; such events were a focal point for fairs and the like at the time.
Inmates - the inmates of the lunatic asylum, suffering from a variety of mental disorders, some immediately obvious in their behaviour. Like the labourers, they are won over by Courtenay's personality.
The Militia - portrayed in both productions in Kent by the member of the Grenadier Company 3rd Battalion 1st Foot Guards (a historical reenactment group), the militia's main function is to shoot the labourers and Courtenay in the climactic battle sequence, but they also appear at various points in the show to do Townsend's bidding.
Man One, Two, Three and Four - some of Courtenay's followers, who bring news of the militia's movements as the battle begins. When the full extent of the militia becomes clear, Man One and Man Two attempt to desert, but are stopped by Courtenay, who threatens to shoot anyone who tries to flee.
Courtenay is almost, but not quite, sung through, with various themes for the principal characters recurring and interweaving through the score. Those scenes which consist of spoken dialogue or action are underscored, often with themes which connect the scene with other moments from the show. Percussion, the first love of composer Ethan Lewis Maltby, plays a large part in the music, with a string quartet being used to underscore Katherine Tom's songs.
Some key numbers from the score are as follows:
'Destroy' - the opening number, preceded by a minute or so of rumbling noises and percussive outbursts, is a shout of anger from the labourers of the ensemble, who want to destroy the machines which are ruining their lives. It has lots of staccato outbursts followed by a choral moment as they wonder 'what has it come to when it comes to this?'
'Distant Thoughts' - Katherine's first solo, which comes from nowhere, as this is the only time she appears in Act One. As it stands, it is a song of longing and wondering: 'where are you today? what took you from my arms?'
'Visions' - Courtenay's big Act One solo, as he muses on his hopes and dreams. Here, he asks God to guide him in what he does. This introduces his theme, which will be taken up in various guises by himself and the ensemble throughout the show.
'Troubles in the Mind' - Sarah and Mears' love duet, which was recorded as a single for sale in the theatre foyers, and is probably the most beautiful number in the score. In it, Mears questions Sarah's feelings for him, and is reassured by her: 'you know you have my heart, and you know you always will.'
'Sedition' - the landowners of the ensemble get terribly upset about Courtenay's publication and expect dire things to happen: 'attack, defiance, disorder, sedition is the start!' Prompted by them, Townsend has Courtenay brought to him and tells him how things stand: 'it's me who runs this city'. The ensemble, who are often angry about one thing or another, are at their angriest here, and Townsend's measured, rhyming (unusual in Courtenay) solo is full of menace, introducing his principal theme.
'Run Him To The Ground' - the landowners get ever-more angered by Courtenay in this number, which leads up to and includes the trial of the local fishermen. At first, the voices of the ensemble enter in a soft, menacing choral fashion. Then, as Courtenay waffles on in defence of the fishermen, Townsend and Mears reflect on the situation and, as victory is sensed, Townsend sings an aria of triumph while the ensemble work themselves into a frenzy as they sing: 'run him to the ground now you have the chance, run him to the ground, see the devil dance!'
'The Phoenix' - the huge set piece that ends Act One, with many variations on Courtenay's main musical theme, plus lots of 'angry' singing from the ensemble, both labourers and landowners. In the midst of the near-riot, Courtenay's bail arrives, and the number changes into a chaotic celebration for Courtenay, Sarah and the labourers.
'I Do Not Know You' - Courtenay and Katherine meet for the first time (or are reunited). They sing at cross-purposes as Katherine reminds her husband of their love, while Courtenay tells a stranger he does not know her and never has.
'Utopia' - in the insane asylum, Courtenay dreams of a better world. His dreams are heard by the other inmates, who gradually join in his anthemic call for this new world.
'Courtenay's Waltz Reprise' - vocally very much a reprise of his first appearance on stage, the orchestration makes this sound a lot 'madder' (reflecting what we now know of Courtenay's mental condition) than in Act One. Courtenay and Townsend also spar vocally, leading to a clash between their main musical themes.
'Swordplay' - not a song, but rather the underscoring for the swordfight between Townsend and Courtenay, which reprises the bassline for 'Run Him To The Ground' as Townsend attempts to do just that.
'A Bright Start' - the finale of the show, which follows some post-battle narration. It is a strange moment, as the ensemble rise from the ground to reprise Courtenay's theme from 'Visions', looking forward to the 'balanced world' which they had been fighting for.
Several musical numbers inevitably didn't make it to the final version, due to time, restructuring and other concerns. Two of the most significant are: 'Why Can't He Stick to One Name?', where some of the ensemble (including the now non-existent character Tupenny Sal) realise that 'Sir William Courtenay' had called himself 'Count Moses Rostopchien Rothschild' not long ago, and 'Visions Two', a frantic number expressing the turmoil in the minds of the asylum's inmates.
At a time when most new British musicals seem to follow the format of creating a story around the hits of a particular group or artist, Courtenay is an oddity in that the story is paramount and the music is secondary to the storyline. The various themes are interwoven to create a tapestry which becomes richer when heard again, helping to give insight into the characters' states of mind.
Audience reaction to the show in each new incarnation is generally very positive, although reviewers were split on whether the central story was worthy of dramatisation. It remains to be seen whether Courtenay will go on to have a life outside of Kent, but it seems likely that a show with a clever (yet hummable) score, a swordfight, pyrotechnics and a huge climcatic battle-scene will create excitement wherever it next rears its head.
Further information, particularly concerning the 'how it came to be' aspect can be found at the Courtenay website.