In preparation for our upcoming production of Brean Hammond’s Ben and Steenie our Artistic Director took a trip to one of the locations featured in the play. She reports back and shares her thoughts on the practice of visiting the locations of events when working on dramatised history.
Recently I had the chance to visit the village of Bottesford as research for Ben and Steenie. I’d been there once years before, but this time I was looking with theatrical eyes: the goal this time was not to commune with dead ancestors but to get ideas about the place where the play is set.
There is a lot to be said for seeing the places where a history-based play “really happened”. The obvious assumption might be that this would be to get ideas for how to recreate those locations onstage, and to some extent getting inspiration along those lines does happen at times. This was less at the heart of the Bottesford trip, though, because we had already decided that the play would not benefit from too heavy a hand in terms of design. I am not a big fan of “heavy” designs for productions; “you shouldn’t go home whistling the scenery” is one of my oft-repeated beliefs. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” is another. In short, I believe that the design should serve the play, not overtop it.
This would be easy to do with a play set in Jacobean England, because the style of the time, for those with the wherewithal, was ornate and extravagant. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ was the word of the day, and this is visible even in death: the chancel of St Mary’s in Bottesford is crammed with glorious examples of sixteenth – and seventeenth – century tombs, multi-levelled and effigied. As much as I’d love to build the tombs of St Mary’s and give audiences the chance to imagine that space, the truth is that there’s not really any reason for it. Quite apart from the fact that at least one of them postdates the events of the play (in fact, some of them are explicitly referenced on it), they simply aren’t important to the drama. What matters is that certain events take place in a church: it could, conceivably, be the most humble local parish church or Westminster Abbey, the moment and meaning in the drama would be the same.
By the same token, there are some stunningly picturesque views of the churchyard from various places around the village, but they would require a West End budget and stage size – and then, too, it would be an act of self-indulgence, for that wouldn’t serve a dramatic purpose either. Beautiful vistas just aren’t what the play is about.
The other location in the play which features prominently is Belvoir Castle. Unfortunately, the Belvoir Castle of Ben and Steenie’s time is long gone, replaced by a crenellated Victorian pile. I didn’t visit it, since nothing of its fabric would be appropriate to the play. Any replication of the castle or its interior would always be of the imagination, although certainly there are other contemporary castles in Great Britain one could turn to for similar inspiration.
What this trip was actually about was just getting a sense of the place: how its various locations are laid out, and how the people of the play would have moved through and related to those spaces. It was very helpful to get a sense of where all these places are in relation to one another. The early scenes of the play have Ben Jonson upon the road toward Belvoir, and I now have a better idea of what that distance and terrain is like, and what sort of countryside he would have encountered that day. The relationship of the castle to the village was one I didn’t have a sense of prior to this trip. Some of the play’s characters who live in the village work as servants in the castle, and it would have been a bit of a walk, albeit over easy, flat terrain. Despite the distance, the castle dominates the landscape, and understanding that juxtaposition helps make sense of its relationship to the Bottesford inhabitants as they transpire in Ben and Steenie. It must have loomed in importance – and must have been an awesome thing to people who were living in one- or two-room cottages.
Getting a sense of the village as it must have stood is more difficult, because much of today’s Bottesford consists of modern developments. The fact that St Mary’s is as big as it is suggests that the village was larger than just a few houses or families. And its distance from the castle might suggest that the majority of its inhabitants weren’t directly dependent on employment there, which helps to make sense of the character Joan Flower in the play and her pride in her relationship as a servant to the local nobility.
Like so much research, it’s difficult to say how any of this will manifest itself once we get into rehearsals. But when approaching historical dramas, one would be remiss in not at least attempting to get a closer look at what remains. After all, although for our purposes they are characters in a play, many of them were real people, and trying to make sense of them and their world just seems a way of respecting that fact. Most of them didn’t leave any physical traces, but in Bottesford (as with Jonson’s visit to York) walking in their footsteps brings them, and the events of the play, just a little bit closer.