‘Henry VI’ Is Performed Where Wars of Roses Were Fought
Graham Butler as King Henry VI in the Globe Theater production.
TOWTON, England — Even on a blistering summer day in this tiny village near York, George Goodwin, a British historian and writer, sees the snow and fog of a Palm Sunday more than 500 years ago. It was then that 28,000 men lost their lives in the Battle of Towton, the most ferocious battle for the crown between the Houses of York and Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses.
Thanks to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, audiences were able to get a taste of what Mr. Goodwin sees when they gathered on a recent Sunday at the Towtonbattlefield for a daylong performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” trilogy, as they can do on three other battlefields this month: Tewkesbury on Sunday, St. Albans on Aug. 11 and Barnet on Aug. 24.
The Towton performance, on a clear day with the smell of newly mowed grass in the air, took place on a makeshift elevated stage in the shadow of a church and a towering tree. The audience sat on a gentle slope, mostly in lawn chairs or on blankets, just yards from where the graves of dozens of fallen soldiers from that war were uncovered as recently as 17 years ago.
“This is a battle that was basically written out of history,” said Mr. Goodwin, whose 2012 book, “Fatal Colours,” examines the causes and carnage of the wars that flared for more than 30 years. “It’s a horrific story, and there’s nothing like a good massacre to get people interested.”
The production had a bare bones quality, with farmland for a backdrop and actors dressed in heavy but simple period costume. Several also played drums, large and small, during scene transitions and moments of heightened tension, creating an ominous sense of armies preparing to do battle.
The director, Nick Bagnall, who was hired by the Globe to stage “Henry VI,” and Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director of the Globe, had both read Mr. Goodwin’s book. Mr. Dromgoole proposed the idea of staging the cycle on four battlefields from that war and won approval from government organizations and private landowners. Mr. Bagnall and Mr. Goodwin both said they thought it was the first time Shakespeare had been staged on a British battlefield.
In addition to these performances, the “Henry VI” cycle is touring Britain through the summer, including three stints at the Globe in London and weeklong engagements at about half a dozen theaters from Belfast to Brighton. It’s a lean operation: a cast of 14 actors who play multiple roles; three stage managers; and a crew that assembles, tears down and transports the stage, costumes and props.
The battlefield marathons begin at 12:30 p.m. and end around 10, just as twilight is fading. There are three intermissions and two meal breaks, as well as a few food vendors, portable toilets and a medieval-style tent or two to promote a local preservation society or battle re-enactment group — a spartan setup on what Mr. Bagnall calls “sacred ground.”
“We planned it so that we’re not treading on these people’s graves,” Mr. Bagnall said. “We’re there to understand part of our history.”
Mr. Goodwin and Mr. Bagnall say they want to acknowledge a part of history that has drawn renewed interest in recent years. Wars of the Roses buffs have connected more over the last decade, thanks to the Internet and to historical societies. A new BBC mini-series,“The White Queen” (it is to have its premiere in the United States on Starz next Saturday), based on Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of historical novels, is set during the era.
“Look, ‘Game of Thrones’ is basically the Wars of the Roses,” Mr. Goodwin said, referring to the books and HBO series about families warring for the crown in a medieval-type fantasy world.
“There’s also a sudden realization that this war has not really been taught at school,” he continued, emphasizing that the focus has been more on the last 400 years. “English history does not begin with the Tudors.”
The Tudor dynasty began with the crowning of Henry VII (a Lancaster and father to that reliable media darling Henry VIII), an event that united the warring houses after Henry VII defeated Richard III in battle in 1485 and married Elizabeth of York, Richard’s niece.
Shakespeare depicted much of the Wars of the Roses in “Henry VI” and “Richard III” as propaganda against the Yorkists and took liberties with characters and time, particularly with Henry VI, whom some historians consider to have been a sickly and ineffective king, not the boyish and often lyrical orator depicted in the plays.
“This poor chap was basically twisted in a ball and had no ability to speak,” Mr. Goodwin said of Henry VI. “But that’s not a description Shakespeare could really use.”
Mr. Bagnall has trimmed each play by about 45 minutes (each now runs about 2 hours 15 minutes), deleting some historical inaccuracies and less important characters.
Julian Humphrys, development officer at the Battlefields Trust, a preservation group, said that until recently, the Wars of the Roses had receded so far into the past that there was little direct emotional connection for many. Mr. Humphrys pointed out that these wars were on British soil, unlike conflicts in more recent centuries.
Perhaps the most direct contemporary link to the Wars of the Roses battles was in 1996, when 37 bodies were discovered in a mass grave here during an expansion of the Towton village church. The bodies belonged to soldiers, all killed around the time of the Battle of Towton. Their bones have been documented, and the story of the grave has been the subject of television shows and books.
Environmental issues enter into consideration in staging these plays on actual battlefields, Mr. Humphrys said. “There are re-enactments on many fields, and any time you have an event, there is an archaeological impact. People drop items, dirt is kicked up. Towton was investigated for this event, and the pluses outweigh the minuses.”
Mr. Bagnall said these battlefield performances can help connect people to history.
“We only know Richard III when it comes to the Wars of the Roses,” Mr. Bagnall said. “I remember being so bored by Shakespeare at school when I was young, so I tried to get to the muscle of these plays. Shakespeare is historically incorrect and all over the place in these plays, but the emotional vitality of these characters is absolutely correct.”