York Theatre Royal's community production The Coppergate Woman heads to the stage this month

With rehearsals for York Theatre Royal’s The Coppergate Woman under way, Yvette Huddleston speaks to Kate Hampson who takes on the title role.

Kate Hampson in rehearsals for The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal's community production
Kate Hampson in rehearsals for The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal's community production

York Theatre Royal’s The Coppergate Woman, which opens at the end of this month, promises to be a truly epic production.

With a 90-strong community cast of local people of all ages, it is inspired by an unknown Viking woman whose remains were found in a shallow pit by the river Foss. Her bones are on display in a glass case in the Yorvik centre in York and her story is being told in Hull writer Maureen Lennon’s new play which weaves Norse legend with the stories of modern- day York residents.

Taking on the title role is York-based Kate Hampson, the only professional actor among the large company, who has recently joined the rest of the cast for rehearsals.

Kate Hampson takes the lead role in York Theatre Royal's community production The Coppergate Woman

“I had seen the Coppergate Woman advertised and knew that it was going to be happening as the community show this year. The community cast had already been in rehearsal for it when I went to audition. I had a casting with the directors and I did some readings, we talked about the project and then I was asked to be involved.”

Part of the appeal for Hampson, who has extensive theatre and TV credits including working with Hull Truck and Northern Broadsides and appearing in Happy Valley, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks, was the opportunity to work on such a large-scale production with a community cast. “It is a challenge and there is something really lovely about working with such a large group of local people,” she says. “I have lived in York for many years and it feels like such a privilege to work with them. Rehearsals have been going well and they have been so welcoming and supportive.”

Hampson was aware of the Coppergate Woman from frequent visits to the Yorvik centre when her children were young. “We used to go a lot – I felt as though I knew the Vikings personally it was almost like they were friends,” she says, laughing. “I had seen the Coppergate Woman and read about her and found her story fascinating. I am also a big fan of Maureen Lennon who has written the script – it is really exciting to be able to speak her words.”

The cast and directors Juliet Forster and John R Wilkinson have been exploring the worlds that the characters are inhabiting – Norse legend and contemporary York – finding the narrative links between them and how the themes resonate today.

“Coppergate Woman awakens in the Yorvik centre as a Valkyrie, she is not sure at first what her purpose is but she knows that she has to bring a community together,” says Hampson. “It is really a story about hope and rebuilding and how we can move forward together as a community, so it does speak to these challenging times.”

Hampson says that she has found it quite humbling to be portraying the Coppergate Woman. “It is a bit overwhelming and quite a responsibility to give her a voice but her story really transcends time and place,” she says. “I hope people will come along and learn something and enjoy the collective experience. That’s what theatre does so well – it brings people together through storytelling.”

At York Theatre Royal, July 30-August 6. Details and tickets yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Epic production

The idea for the production grew out of discussions the creative team at York Theatre Royal were having about the importance and power of storytelling.

“The Vikings were storytellers and I started thinking about the Vikings because it’s an area we as a theatre had not explored before and is a very interesting part of our history,” says co-director Juliet Forster. “I thought of Maureen Lennon to write the play as I booked an early show of hers into our Studio theatre after seeing it at Edinburgh. She felt the right fit for the play we wanted to do.”

Lennon was thrilled to be approached to bring the project to life using York’s Viking past as a springboard and focussing on the themes of community, togetherness and the power of storytelling in society. As soon as she was commissioned she went to visit the Jorvik centre.

“I used to love it when I was younger, growing up in Hull, but hadn’t been for years, that’s when the idea for The Coppergate Woman struck me,” she says. “There was something so confronting about the fact that she is on display. A real example of two worlds meeting.”

It was this sense of past and present coming together that inspired her script, weaving myth with contemporary stories.

“The Vikings had an end of the world story in their mythology, Ragnarok, and in our tale the Coppergate Woman is awakened to try to help four people of York live through their own version of Ragnarok. It’s about hope and heartache and loss – and starting again, together.”