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Friday 23rd May 2003
Theatre Review: A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury
Shrewsbury Music Hall, 22nd May 2003
The main characters of A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury Picture: John Bennett
Seated, from left: Henry IV (Tim Baker); Owain Glyndwr (Alan Price) and Sir Harry Hotspur (Martin Jones) covet the English crown

Bringing to the stage a battle that involved thousands of men is always going to be a tall order.

But explaining all the ins and outs that led up to the Battle of Shrewsbury could be described as a challenge at the very least.

audio A Bloody Field's director, Graham Colclough, talks to BBC Radio Shropshire's Jon King about the background to the play (28k)

Get the full lowdown on the Battle of Shrewsbury and how it happened in our history section.

Who was who: Henry IV

Who was who: Harry Hotspur

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Shrewsbury Music Hall
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Edith Pargeter, author of A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury, is perhaps better known as Ellis Peters, author of the Cadfael novels.

Props and costumes for the play came from all sorts of sources, including the Birmingham Rep., Wem Amateur Dramatic Society and Shrewsbury Theatre Guild.

But perhaps the oddest source was a meat processing firm from Shrewsbury, which lent the production some chain mail!

It's more than 30 years since Edith Pargeter published her fictionalised account of the battle and called it A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury.

And last night saw the premiere of the first stage adaptation of the Shropshire author's book, performed by the Bomere Health Players and directed by Graham Colclough.

The first challenge when adapting a play like this is to make sure it's easy enough for the audience to follow without getting bogged down in what was a very complicated situation indeed, or skipping any important bits.

The play achieves this as a faithful adaptation, and it also shares the novel's slant on the events of July 1403 in casting heroes and villains.

A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury is the first of two plays featuring the battle to be performed in Shropshire this summer. As such it's bound to draw comparisons with the second, an outdoor production of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1, to be performed at Haughmond Abbey in June. Click here to read a review of Henry IV.

Shakespeare's version of events is well-known for playing fast and loose with the historical facts, but A Bloody Field doesn't sit on the fence when it comes to characterisation.

As far as this production is concerned, the king, Henry IV, is definitely the bad guy - and this version of events is rammed home in the opening minutes of the play, in a dungeon of Pontefract Castle.

Here the deposed King Richard II is being held by Henry, the man who replaced him on the throne. And he is being deliberately starved.

Henry is a troubled man, aged by the strain of power, and the Bloody Field version of the man is choc-full of nasty personality traits.

Tim Baker as Henry IV Picture: John Bennett
King Henry contemplates his crown

Tim Baker, who plays the king, naturally makes the most of this. He plays Henry as an extremely bitter man, arrogant yet insecure, lacking any redeeming features and driven by envy.

He's jealous of the play's hero, the dashing knight Sir Harry 'Hotspur' Percy, played by Martin Jones, and determined to bring him down a peg or two.

In fact, he's such a nasty piece of work that I wondered if I should boo him - pantomime style - every time he made his bad-tempered way onto stage.

With such an obvious baddie, a good guy is needed to balance things out, and that role is supplied by Harry Hotspur, leader of the rebel army.

He's portrayed as a whiter-than-white hero, noble, charismatic, bound by the rules of chivalry and happy to lay down his life for the greater good.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that this was the case. Henry is seen to behave in exactly the same way Richard did before he was deposed, when in fact he was a far better king, while it's difficult to imagine Hotspur risking all in a rebellion if there wasn't anything in it for him.

Still, if The Bard was happy to use poetic licence in order to spice up the story a little, we can excuse Edith Pargeter for doing the same.

But that minor criticism out of the way, the play still tells the story in a compelling way from the point of view of the rebels and the people of Shrewsbury. There's also a little love interest for the virtuous (but married!) Hotspur and a young Welsh woman living in the town.

It moves on briskly through 29 scenes and two and a half hours in a breathless fashion that keeps the audience abreast of all the twists and turns in the plot.

And despite minimal scenery and props demanded by a small scale production and so many scenes, the staging was excellent, while costumes were pretty impressive.

Around the rivalries of King Henry and Hotspur are woven the other main characters: Prince Hal, the king's 15 year-old son, and the Welsh rebel, Owain Glyndwr.

Prince Hal, ably played by Joe Holland, is the victim of a sort of medieval tug-of-love between his father and his boyhood mentor Hotspur, which forms a central theme.

Hal, who was later to make his name as Henry V, victor at Agincourt and conqueror of much of France, is plagued by a conflict of loyalties, especially as he was looked after by the deposed Richard II during his father's exile from England.

Publicity poster for A Bloody Field
Publicity poster for A Bloody Field, depicting the lion emblems of the Percys and the king

True to form, the king is insanely jealous of Hotspur's relationship with his son and is concerned Hal may even side with the rebels when push comes to shove.

Glyndwr, played by Alan Price, the rebel Welshman who Henry is unable to defeat, is the catalyst for the Battle of Shrewsbury and the reason why Hotspur ends up in this corner of the world.

Keeping the play moving along amidst all these personal stories is a tough job, and the play uses three women of Shrewsbury for narrators as an effective way of explaining what's going on.

And with such grave subject matter, writer Chris Eldon Lee must have thought it essential to inject some humour to lighten the mood somewhat.

A reference to flooding in Frankwell being nothing new went down well with the Music Hall audience, while Hal's admission early in the play that he hoped 'to have a crack at the French one day' raised a titter, too.

Later on, two mercenaries - who keep changing sides - provide the laughs, with some astute observations on medieval life and the battle itself - not least the fact that most of the battle's main characters share the same name - Henry.

The play charts the deteriorating relationship between the king and Hotspur, and Hotspur's efforts to first make peace with Glyndwr, and then to side with him against the king.

It also makes the most of the story of 'Sir Henry's dismay' and prophesies of death on the battlefield in the lead-up to the climax of the battle.

The final battle scene was always going to be difficult, but it is carried off well, with the help of the mercenaries and their bid to stay on the winning side at all costs.

And in the end the play was warmly appreciated by a full house.

A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury runs until Saturday, 24th May at Shrewsbury Music Hall. Performances start at 8pm.

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