Entertainment & Arts

Taking Shakespeare to the battlefield

One of Shakespeare's Henry Vl plays staged in Towton, Yorkshire

In a picture-book country field a short drive from York, about 300 spectators have gathered at the site of one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil. Sporting camping chairs and hampers, they've come to the village of Towton to watch a triple bill by England's greatest playwright.

William Shakespeare's three Henry Vl plays are being staged back-to-back in this quintessential English setting in a single day. It's the first of four dates that will see these dramas - produced by the Globe Theatre in London - presented at the actual battlefield sites they feature.

"They're the plays that come before the rise of Richard lll, so they're about the houses of York and Lancaster," says the director, Nick Bagnall.

"They're a major, vital part of our history that seems to get forgotten. They deal with an incredible amount of human story at war, and that's what really excites me about them."

The three dramas chronicle the Wars of the Roses - the civil conflict between the rival families of York and Lancaster - which reached a decisive moment at Towton on Palm Sunday, 1461.

"It's estimated 28,000 men died in these fields where we're stood now," Mr Bagnall says, "and most of the men didn't know who they were fighting because of the weather conditions."


On the day of the battle a snowstorm turned the field into a confused death-trap for the Lancastrian forces, who, although they had superior numbers, had the wind against them - a crucial factor in the age of the archer - which meant their arrows fell short.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe performance lasted nine hours in total

In contrast, the Yorkist bowmen - with the wind in their favour - could rain destruction on the Lancastrians from a safe distance. And when Yorkist reinforcements arrived, it became a rout.

Mark Taylor, chairman of the Towton Battlefield Society, says this is when most of the killing happened.

"Nobody knew the terrain and they just ran for their lives," he says. "If you walk around the battlefield there are certain places where you can see that for hundreds of people, they would have realised in an instant they were going to die that day.

"This is a scene of massive human tragedy and conflict," says Mr Taylor, "where the crown of England changed hands."

Summer heat

Instead of weapons, the people who have come to watch are equipped with sandwiches and sun-cream. Between each act, the field that witnessed such carnage more than 500 years ago is a scene of happy chatter and clinking wine-glasses.

Image caption Director Nick Bagnall has adapted the plays to suit the location

Under a calm blue sky and in wilting summer heat, it can be difficult to imagine the quagmire and slaughter that happened here. There is plenty of fighting on stage though.

"It's squabble after squabble and battle after battle - they're thrilling plays that move at a real pace," says Mr Bagnall, who edited each episode down to about two hours.

"A lot of talking in a field doesn't really work - it needs to be action-packed," he says.

"I've got rid of all of the chit-chat and gone straight to the bone. The purists will probably hate me for it, but you can't please everybody."

The compact format seems to suit the audience. Not every spectator is staying for all three plays. "There's only so much Shakespeare you can take in a day," says one - but most are here for the duration.

"I really think it brings alive a period of history that there's lots of interest in at the moment," says one woman, while others talk enthusiastically about the set and the costumes.

"It's part of our history as Yorkshire people," says one local man. "One of the important things is that by coming here today it's made us find out more about it."

English obsession

Provoking that curiosity in the historical events portrayed in the plays is part of why the Globe decided to stage them on battlefields.

Image caption Many spectators brought their own picnics

"It's important to understand that these plays are written about a history that happened," says the Globe's artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole.

"Often history can float away from us and become very theoretical and abstract," he says. "To be where these appalling battles took place should add a real flavour to the occasion."

And, Mr Dromgoole adds, with many battle sites being popular with local historical and re-enactment societies, taking Henry Vl out of the theatre and into the field was a chance to add a different quality to these productions of Shakespeare.

"I though it would be lovely to join in with that peculiar, sometimes nutty, sometimes very rewarding English obsession with their own history."

Jason Caffrey's report from Towton was featured on the BBC World Service programme Newshour. Listen back via BBC iPlayer Radio or download the Newshour podcast.

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites