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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Nugent Monck

Nugent Monck (1877-1958)

(Walter) Nugent Bligh Monck, actor and theatre director, founded the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich in 1921. Known as Nugent Monck, he was born at Welshampton, Shropshire, on February 4th 1877, son of Reverend George Monck and Hester Isabella Monck, neé Nugent. Monck was educated at the Royal Institution, Liverpool and in 1892 he entered the Royal Academy of Music in London in order to train as a singer or violinist. In 1895 he transferred to the academy's actor training course, graduating in 1898. He went straight into a theatre touring company until 1901.

Whilst working in London, he met and was influenced by William Poel (1852-1934), the first English promoter of revolutionary theories of Shakespearian staging. Monck became Poel's stage manager in 1902. In January 1909, Rex Rynd, the Precentor of Norwich Cathedral, invited Monck to Norwich to direct a series of historical tableaux in St. Andrew's Hall. The production was very successful and Monck was invited back the following year to direct a masque at Blickling Hall.

On his return to Norwich, Monck rented a medieval house in Ninham's Court, Bethel Street from a Mrs. Pym at 6 shillings (30p) a week. (This house became his permanent home and was gifted to him for as long as he remained in Norwich). Monck worked in London, Dublin and New York from 1909-10 although Norwich was his main base. Influenced by Poel's Shakespearian theories, Monck stated that he wanted to: 'evolve a new outlet for dramatic sense which would not be hampered by stock traditions, scenery, curtains, footlights, paints and other things that make for technique'.

From 1911, he produced several plays with various amateur groups in Norwich, often holding meetings in his own home 'to read and talk over plays that interested them'. Some plays were performed in a room in the Music House, King Street; others were performed in Blackfriar's Hall. The amateur group was disbanded at the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war when Monck served in the Royal Medical Corps. In 1919, upon Monck's return, the company was reformed as 'The Guild of Norwich Players', performing as before, in his own drawing room at Ninham's Court and also at various local venues.

The Players needed a permanent venue in Norwich and began a fund in order to raise money for a building.  Monck donated all that he could, although he was never very affluent. The project was locally supported with donations and guarantees and eventually, a disused Roman Catholic Chapel, built in 1794, was chosen for conversion into a theatre. This building, in St. John's Alley, Charing Cross, had been a baking soda factory, a warehouse and a Salvation Army Citadel during the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the fabric was sound with good acoustics. With galleries on three sides, it provided a good basis for Monck's innovative, replica Shakespearian theatre. The chapel was purchased in 1921 for £600. It was converted at a cost of £3,300, and playwright W.B. Yeats opened the 220-seat theatre on September 26th 1921. Monck named the theatre the Maddermarket after the local madder plant and from the nearby medieval site of the Norwich wool and madder-market.

By the opening date, Monck was financially broken and was fed by his players, all of whom were, and still are, anonymous amateurs. Monck had a reputation for being a martinet on stage, accustomed to being instantly obeyed. Nevertheless, he was greatly admired and respected.

Monck had produced all of Shakespeare's plays at the Maddermarket by 1927, (a canon), the first producer known to achieve this. He was appointed OBE in 1947 and by 1950 he had produced more than 200 plays. He retired as director of the Maddermarket in 1952, after making arrangements for the Maddermarket Theatre Trust (established in 1939) to take over the property and future management of the playhouse. Monck occasionally directed local productions after his retirement.

He died, very suddenly, at Ninham's Court on October 21st 1958. He was one of the most highly regarded Shakespearian producers in England and his theatre is still among the best-known 'Little Theatres' in the world.                                     

Further Reading

  • Meeres, F., A History of Norwich, Phillimore, Chichester, 1998.
  • Solomons, G., Stories Behind the Plaques, Capricorn Books, Cantley, Norfolk, 1981
  • The Maddermarket Theatre and the Playing of Shakespeare,  Monck, Nugent hakespeare Survey, An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Product, A. Nicoll (ed.) Volume 12, 1959, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 71-75. 
  • Monck, (Walter) Nugent Bligh (1877-1958), Salmon Eric, Oxford Dictionary of ational Biography, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004. Article number 57168.

Shirley Wigg

January 2008