Review: Bess: The Commoner Queen, Guildhall Theatre, Derby

The story behind the new drama Bess: The Commoner Queen is almost as fascinating as the life of Bess of Hardwick herself.

Well, that is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration – it would be hard to match the extraordinary life of the woman who married four times; became a Lady-in-Waiting and confidante of Queen Elizabeth I; was ‘jailor’ to Mary Queen of Scots; spent time herself in The Tower of London and become the matriarch of the Cavendish dynasty, the Dukes of Devonshire.

However the new play, which is being staged at the Guildhall Theatre in Derby this week, came about following a Facebook chat between award-winning playwright Kevin Fegan and international soprano and actress Michelle Todd.

It turns out they were in the same class at school in Mansfield, but having not kept in touch neither knew of the other’s success. Michelle, who had long wanted to play the part of the intriguing Bess, introduced Kevin to the story of her life and he says he knew straight away there was a play to be written.

The couple approached First Art, an Arts Council England project to promote arts in North East Derbyshire, for funding and the resulting production deserves to become an award-winner for the way in which it allows the audience to become enveloped in the real world of Bess.

Michelle takes centre stage in the one-woman drama, in which all the other major players in the life of Bess appear in filmed excerpts on a stage-size backdrop. The filming all took place at Hardwick Hall earlier in the month and it oozes the atmosphere of the historic surroundings in a way that could never otherwise have been recreated in the theatre.

It was a bold yet simple decision that enabled the duo to condense the long life of Bess into just two hours. Having said that they still had to pack a lot into those 120 minutes and Michelle put every ounce of passion she had for the part she had so wanted to play into her performance. It was definitely not a role for the faint-hearted.

The rest of the cast who appeared in the films were Tom Dussek as William Cavendish, Matt Weyland as  William St Loe, Seth Morgan as George Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury and Delphine du Barry as the dancing Arbella. Emily Manley was the singing voiceover for Arbella.

The film maker was Will Simpson, director Rikki Tarascas, designer Eleanor Field and composer Rod Adams.

The play can be seen at the Guildhall Theatre until Sunday at 2.30pm, when there is a BSL signed performance followed by a post-show discussion. For tickets go to