Writer and S&C social media manager for Instagram, Beth Lewingdon, revisits Besieged, a historical play by local writer, actor and PhD researcher Vin Adams, based on contemporary accounts of a surprising moment in Portsmouth’s history.
Parliamentary soldiers line Portsdown Hill, surrounding the garrison as they lay siege to the Square Tower. The lands around the city are laid to waste by the warring forces as the people watch from the safety of Hayling Island.
The Portsmouth of the English Civil War is one we rarely encounter. Despite hosting one of the largest conflicts in the period, the history books mention Portsmouth only as an aside.
In the mid-17th Century, Parliament was in conflict with the King, Charles I. In 1642, Charles raised his standard at Nottingham, signalling the beginning of the Civil War and resulting in cities across the country declaring for King or for Parliament. General George Goring, leader of the garrison at Portsmouth, had until this point been playing sides, building Portsmouth’s defences using money from both. When forced to finally pick a side, Goring declared for the Royalists, making Portsmouth a target for Parliamentary forces.
Vin Adams’ play Besieged, which was performed in March by the Southsea Shakespeare Actors, follows Portsmouth through the resultant siege. Goring stars as the duplicitous protagonist, manipulating Parliament and the Queen, who grant him support in the belief that they have his in return. Meanwhile, the people of the city prepare themselves for conflict. Adams looks at a period of Portsmouth’s history that is frequently overlooked.
When we think of the Civil War, our minds take us to Oliver Cromwell, or Charles I. We picture a battle between King and Parliament, the fate of government on the line. What we rarely imagine is the lives of ordinary people, caught up in this conflict of ideology. A big consideration for Adams while writing Besieged was the question of what does and doesn’t make it into common knowledge history.
‘I’m quite fascinated by local history, and what gets into the popular imagination and what doesn’t. Everybody around here knows about Nelson, and the Victory; everybody knows about the Mary Rose, and Henry VIII and his castle; everybody knows about the Dockyard and WWII. So why for something as significant as this, which saw Portsdown Hill covered in Parliamentary soldiers, and the farmland laid waste to, and most of the population transported to safety over on Hayling Island, why don’t we know about this?’
In particular, Adams questions why it is that we have such a strong cultural knowledge built up around the Civil War, yet very few people are aware of a significant conflict involving our own city. To a large extent, this is because our cultural knowledge is built on media representations – Cromwell (1970) starring Alec Guiness and Richard Harris, for example, has shaped the perceptions of many of us, Adams included. We have yet to see a movie or TV show about the Siege of Portsmouth, and so it has not made its way into the popular imagination in the same way.
Adams wanted to write Besieged and fill this gap in our knowledge – to begin the process of bringing Portsmouth’s role in the Civil War into our minds. He didn’t want to compete with the legacy of hundreds of previous portrayals of Cromwell and Charles I, instead finding it much more appealing and creative to tackle something new.
Adams took his inspiration from several sources. The play is set in 1642, not long after Shakespeare was writing, and you can see the Shakespearean influence. The language choices bear a strong resemblance to those in Shakespeare’s plays, but Adams draws particular note to his characters. Shakespeare plays often display a dramatic spread of characters across various classes and motives, and Adams wanted to draw that into his play. His cast ranges from the Queen of England, Henrietta Maria, right down to the prostitutes in town. Not only that, but there are several major threads running throughout the play – the main one of the Siege and Goring’s scheming, but also a plotline of a soldier who falls in love with a farmer’s daughter, a story with several scenes dedicated to it. The contrast helps to enforce the message that the Siege of Portsmouth was an actual event in our history, and that it had a real impact on the people living there.
Another source of inspiration was Sir John Oglander’s diary. Oglander was a Deputy Governor of Portsmouth in the 1630s, and by the time Besieged takes place, he was Deputy Governor of the Isle of Wight. His diary is primarily occupied with domestic accounts, but he comments on politics as well, particularly when things in Portsmouth started escalating. Adams found Oglander’s diary entries, especially the personal ones referring to his wife, son or neighbours, to be very human, and the work stands out to Adams as a connection to the past. Due to Oglander’s wry and antagonistic comments on Goring, Adams felt he was the perfect choice for his Chorus. Some of the narration is directly quoted from Oglander’s diary.
Besieged was written and performed as part of Adams’ PhD, which looks at the use of historical language by playwrights. Many historical plays (and films) tend to use more modern language, rather than attempt something that sounds contemporary. While this is helpful for accessibility, Adams feels it fails to fully immerse the audience in the setting.
Adams pastiches the language of the 17th Century, but edits had to be made to Adams’ original vision to maintain a balance of authentic language and accessibility. For example, he uses iambic pentameter for lines spoken by Royalists, but had to change the speech of the Parliamentarians. Originally, they spoke in modern language to make a clear contrast between them and the Royalists, however it was noted in early script reads that this detracted from the immersion in the play, and so they were rewritten in 17th Century prose. Another distinct change made was the removal of several scenes. In particular, the First Act of the play originally included a scene in which Goring and the Queen held a covert discussion about the state of affairs, using a painting of George and the Dragon to speak in code. However, it was decided that a conversation laced with double meaning would be too hard to understand when spoken in 17th Century language, especially so early in the play, and so it was cut and replaced with a much more straightforward discussion.
To bring the Siege to life, Adams chose his language very carefully. 17th Century records, from Parliament and from people living in Portsmouth itself, gave him a sampling of the language, and some lines were lifted straight from the source. Throughout the process, Adams’ goal was to find a rhythm in the dialogue, to try and replicate the mellifluous sound that comes with Shakespearean plays. The result of this attention to detail is a performance that feels genuine and authentic; history come to life.
As part of his PhD research, Adams created a survey for audience members to fill out regarding his language choices and how they impacted immersion in the play. The results indicate that despite some difficulty with understanding, the language helped to make the setting come to life, especially given how Besieged resembles a Shakespeare play, latching on to that existing connection with the imagined past.
Besieged brings to life a version of historical Portsmouth that we rarely see. The play shows us a range of characters, their stories told through personal as well as political plotlines, and all performed in the Square Tower, the site of the Siege itself 377 years ago.
Find out more
University of Portsmouth history blog: Portsmouth and the English Civil Wars
BCW Project: Civil War in the South East
History in Portsmouth: The Siege of Portsmouth