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Shakespeare goes to historic battlefields

For the first time ever a Shakespeare play is being staged in the actual battlefields it depicts, as interest in England’s 15th century civil conflicts known as the 'War of the Roses' grows.

Towton battlefield in Yorkshire, Northern England, is usually a quiet rural idyll. But this summer it hosted another battle - nearly 600 years after 28,000 men died fighting there in one of the bloodiest battles ever to have taken place in England.

This time the battle was part of the Shakespeare Globe Theater's performance of Henry VI, which details the conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster between 1455 and 1487. The civic strife eventually saw Henry VI defeated and Edward IV crowned King of England.

"To come here today where approximately 28,000 men died in these particular fields, gives the place real resonance and vitality," said the play's director, Nick Bagnall.

Copyright (an DW abgegeben) Lars Bevanger, UK Korrespondent für DW Ort: Towton Battlefield - Towton Schlachtfeld, Nord England (Yorkshire) Schlagwörter: Towton Schlachtfeld, Shakespeare, Shakespeare in den Eigenen Schlachtfeld, Henry VI, Der Rosenkrieg, England, Geschichte Datum: Juli 2013 Zulieferer: Emma Wallis

The bloodiest battle of English history heralded 15 years of civil war

"Of course we're very excited to be here - but also we need to remember what happened. I think that gives it a strange edge to the day, which I'm sure the actors are feeling. They're all very aware of what happened in this field."

Challenging battlefield performance

The Shakespeare Globe Theater usually performs in a replica of the original Globe Theatre which stood on London's river Thames until it burnt down in 1613. The company's productions aim to emulate the way Shakespeare's plays would have been staged during the author's own lifetime. Yet never before has a play been staged on a battlefield where the action - both historically and in the play - actually took place.

"The challenges are manifold," Tom Bird, the executive producer of the Globe Theatre told DW.

"You're not blessed with the facilities of the normal theater space. Luckily at the Globe we find it easier than a lot of other theater companies to move outdoors because we work in a space that doesn't have a lighting rig, and we don't use electronic sound."

Neglected history

The stage and the audience in Towton battle field. (Photo: Lars Bevanger, DW correspondent)

'The war of the roses is a microcosom of our current day society'

The time period around the War of the Roses has been a largely neglected part of English history, compared to more famous periods like the Tudor and Victorian years and the two world wars. But this summer interest in the fights between the houses of York and Lancaster has grown rapidly.

This is partly thanks to the hit TV series "The White Queen," based on Philippa Gregory's bestselling novel series The Cousins' War, which follows the women caught up in the power struggles during the time of the War of the Roses.

"I think people actually realize that the war of the roses is a fascinating period of time - it's a micro-cosmos of our present day society. A society full of greed, power, ambition, lust, change of regimes - I think today we can recognize a lot of ourselves in the past," said Mark Taylor, the chair of the local Towton Battlefield Society.

A casket with a sword on top and red and white roses which form a cross, the english cross. (Photo: Lars Bevanger, DW correspondent)

10 percent of the male population fought at Towton, 1461. 30,000 people died

He felt the battle of Towton had more than earned a more prominent place in English history lessons, and that staging a Shakespeare play in the actual battlefield was a great idea:

"Maybe ten percent of the male population fought here. A kingship changed hands, a new regime came into power and it heralded another 10 - 15 years of civil war. Here today we've got people who love theater and who will walk away loving a bit of history. And we've got people who love battlefields walking away thinking: 'actually I'm going to go to the theatre more often.' It's a total win-win."

A picture of the play's producer, Tom Bird. (Photo: Lars Bevanger, DW correspondent)

Producer Bird says we 'recognise ourselves in the past'

Tom Bird of the Shakespeare Globe Theater company also welcomed the renewed interest in the power struggles of 15th century England, and hoped the play, books and TV series could help spread interest in the actual battlefields of old:

"The fact that this was the bloodiest battle in English history isn't known about. There are people in the village who aren't really aware of the significance of what exactly happened here. So it's really important to us that we re-engage with the landscape and the history of what happened," he told DW.


A picture of Helen Cox in 15th century costume. She's a reenactor based in Yorkshire (Photo: Lars Bevanger, DW correspondent)

Re-enactors like Helen Cox want the past to be portrayed as accurate as possible

Yet not all those watching Shakespeare's Henry VI at Towton were fans of the way "The White Queen" series depicts this important part of their country's history.

"We have rather mixed feelings about 'The White Queen' in the historical fraternity," Helen Cox, a re-enactor, dressed in a 15th century gown and head-dress, told DW.

"From our perspective as re-enactors there are many things about it that could be more authentic and true to the real history. On the whole, I would say it's a good thing, but we are today dressed in rather more authentic costumes than they're using for 'The White Queen''." 

The Shakespeare Globe Theater's production of Henry VI now moves on to be performed on three more battlefields mentioned in the play - Barnet, St Albans and Tewkesbury in the west of England.

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