Performing Portchester’s Hidden Stories
Forgotten Napoleonic theatre brought back to life
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars loom large in the public imagination, yet, military history often overlooks how writers and artists helped to shape ideas of nationhood at the time. Funded by the AHRC, Professor Katherine Astbury’s research uncovered the story of a theatre built in Portchester Castle by French prisoners of war (PoWs) during the Napoleonic wars. The plays they wrote and performed there reveal their experience of those turbulent times. The site has added an entire new dimension to its history by recreating the theatre, allowing new visitors to learn about the prisoners’ experience for themselves.
Before 2017, Portchester Castle had focused on its Roman and medieval history, overlooking its time as a depot for French PoWs. The theatre built in 1810 was not well understood and visitors to the site were unaware of its unique cultural offering. Through Professor Astbury’s research previously unknown plays authored by the prisoners, forgotten since the 1810s, were brought back to the castle in performance.
In collaboration with English Heritage, the volunteers at Portchester Museum, and local arts groups, Professor Astbury’s work has brought to life new aspects of the castle’s history:
Costume and set design
Performances of the PoWs' work
Period music added to the audio guide
The recreated theatre and period costumes provided the stage for the revival of the prisoners’ own dramatic creations, bringing the history of the castle theatre to life.
As well as improving visitor experience, the rebuilt theatre and education space has allowed local college, A-Level and GCSE drama students to perform in the unique surroundings. A prisoner drama about the black revolutionaries of the French Caribbean has led to more research into the diverse communities connected to the castle, while a performance of ‘Roseliska’ won the prestigious Best Interpretive Event at the Discover Heritage Awards 2019.
Artist Elaine Mitchener used Professor Astbury’s research as the inspiration for a sound installation | Les Murs sont témoins | These Walls bear Witness |, which used original source material to recreate the noise and atmosphere of the PoW depot during the 1810s.