Imaginary muskets. Just imagine…

Written by ‘Monmouth’ actor and writer David Ruffle

…well, you’ll have to of course. A substantial part of a recent ‘Monmouth’ rehearsal involved how to make an audience believe we are actually holding weapons when we are in fact the last people that should be entrusted with such devices. It’s not too dissimilar to the playing of air guitars although performing the solos from ‘Free Bird’ on any form of 17th century weaponry would, I imagine, be fairly problematic in itself. Still, we gave it our best shot, pun intended.

Johnnie Hoskins, the movement director for ‘The Tempest of Lyme’ was patience itself as he took us through our paces with various degrees of mime required to perfect our musketry talents. One thing you must know about imaginary muskets once the art has been mastered is the weight! For instance, I managed to drop mine twice! I looked around sheepishly as it clattered to the stage, but then realised that…hey…imaginary muskets make no noise.

Photographs by Simon Emmett

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Immediately after that rehearsal a few of us headed, in costume, to the Volunteer for a spot of filming that will be used during the performance. In order not to upset the locals we took the sensible option of leaving our muskets at the theatre for being in possession of an imaginary weapon in public is a criminal offence in wide areas of Dorset.  The Volunteer customers must be used to such spectacles as costumed thespians invading their pub as, when the laughter died down,  they did not bat a communal eyelid. We were all much gratified to find the beer was not imaginary and as much fun as all that was, perhaps the highlight of the evening was the sight of Steve and Brian Rattenbury at the checkout in Tesco looking more resplendent than any Tesco   customer perhaps has a right to.  Steve, expecting to buy his milk for a groat was being overly optimistic. To add insult to injury, he had neglected to bring his Rebellion Club Card!

Next door to Tesco is Boot’s the Chemist and it was in a house on that site where Judge Jeffreys , the ‘Hanging’ judge dined with Gregory Alford, the Mayor of Lyme Regis during the time of the ‘Bloody Assizes’. George Jeffreys was Lord Chancellor at the time of the Monmouth rebellion and was sent to the West country to conduct the trials of captured rebels. One thousand, three hundred and eighty-one of these rebels were found guilty of treason and although the penalty for the offence of treason was death, this was inflicted on, perhaps only half of those found guilty. Owing to that, it is possible therefore to cut Jeffreys some slack and present a case for him not being as harsh and vindictive as history paints him. All that was required of Jeffreys was to impose the sentence required by law. It was up to King James to commute the sentences under the prerogative of mercy. It was his failure to do so that made the reprisals so savage. Jeffreys was to fall foul of William after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and ended his days in the Tower of London in 1689 albeit through illness rather than execution.

Gregory Alford was the son of Richard Alford who also served as Mayor. Both were the most prominent men of Lyme in their time. During the siege of Lyme in 1644 these ‘prominent men’ actually fought with the Royal army against Parliamentarian Lyme. Indeed, the family home, Haye House became the headquarters for Prince Maurice. After the Royal army was repulsed his father was imprisoned and his own property sequestered. Back he came though and was a member of the Town Council by 1661, eventually rising to become, of course, Mayor. Described as an ultra-Royalist, Gregory Alford was the scourge of Lyme’s dissenters, taking every chance to persecute them, adjudging them to be enemies of Church and State. That someone like him could operate as the chief citizen of a town like Lyme is explained by the fact that he was put in the post of Mayor through King James and the Privy Council. He was forced upon Lyme. It was no surprise that he rode hard to Honiton to raise the alarm after Monmouth successfully disembarked at Lyme. The atmosphere in town as he blithely dined with Jeffreys can be imagined as Jeffrey’s express purpose in being there was to organise and oversee the hanging and quartering of the twelve unfortunate rebels who were to meet their grisly end on the spot where Monmouth first stepped on the beach which would later bear his name. Alford died in 1697, still a citizen of Lyme. The history books are silent on how many mourned him.

Tickets for Monmouth are on sale now at the Tourist Information Centre and will be performed on the 6th,7th,8th,13th,14th and 15th of July.