Playwright Ben Musgrave found himself on a historical adventure as he set about researching his latest play Across the Dark Water.
A dramatisation of the Southampton plot to overthrow Henry V, the play has been commissioned as part of The Berry Theatre’s Road to Agincourt project to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.
Now just weeks away from the premiere of the piece Ben tells us that research is a crucial part of his work.
“My basic principle when I'm researching a play based on complex material is to just come in completely ignorant of the subject, and let me be shocked and amazed and upset and confused by the material at the same rate as an audience might.
“Over recent months, I've tried to go on adventures into the period - visiting the key sites, finding 'things' from the period I can use, talking to historians, and of course reading. It's been fantastic to find myself in this strange, and sometimes familiar, world.”
The play is set in 1415 as the armies of England muster on the south coast preparing to invade France.
It centres on Lord Scrope of Masham, who is loyal to King Henry and uncovers a plot to over throw him. He intends to reveal all to the king but finds himself pulled into the plot – pulled so far he may never return.
Ben, who won first prize in the inaugural Bruntwood Playwriting Competition for his play Pretend You Have Big Buildings, explains more about the play: “The details of the plot itself are quite complex. I remember trying to faithfully explain the whole thing to my wife over dinner, and it took about 30 minutes just to map out the history of the relationships of the plotters. So part of my job has been to seize on the absolutely essential elements of the plot and tell a very simple story about a man - Lord Scrope - who cannot pull himself out of a conspiracy.
“I think I've stayed true to Scrope's story - and tried very hard to wrestle with the historical realities of what he was experiencing. For the purposes of storytelling, I have changed some details, and speculated when there is a gap in our knowledge. But I hope I've remained true to the reality of what happened.”
He says his favourite part of the pay at the moment is the relationship between Scrope and the Earl of Cambridge but that could all change.
“As I was writing I became very interested in the relationship between Richard Earl of Cambridge, and Scrope. I really like the way Cambridge works on Scrope, but how in the end they have a strange sense of fellow-feeling.
“I tend to develop my 'favourite' scenes as the play develops in rehearsal, so we'll see which bits I look forward to every night.”
And it’s the different motivations of the characters that drew Ben to the commission.
“This period has always had an appeal for me. The Southampton plot obviously offered the possibility of a gripping, dramatic story, but it was also mysterious to me - it seemed like a kind of riddle. So far away in time, I couldn't understand the motivations of those involved.
“In particular, I couldn't understand why Lord Scrope of Masham wasn't able to save himself, when his role in the plot appeared so peripheral. I felt very quickly that this was a tragic story of a man who gets drawn in too deep. Why didn't he go to the king? As a playwright, I wanted to know what it felt like to be tangled up in this conspiracy.”
And with Across the Dark Water set to premiere on July 21 at Portchester Castle, Ben says he is looking forward to seeing the play performed in key historical sites where the plotters met.
“I've been to all five venues and they'll all bring something amazing to the production. Some of the venues are very dramatic and I hope the sense of history in them is palpable as we watch the play. And the ghosts begin to appear!”
Ben Musgrave grew up in Britain, Bangladesh and India. Other recent work includes Crushed Shells and Mud at the National Theatre Studio. His screenplay for a new television drama series, Beginners’ Call, is currently under option to Lime Pictures, and his play Politrix was on at the Hackney Showrooms in March 2015.
He teaches creative writing and playwriting at Regent’s University and Westminster University, and is currently a Royal Literary Fund fellow at Greenwich University and was a member of the Forum of Young European Playwrights (Wiesbaden, Germany, 2008), and is currently supported by a grant from the Peggy Ramsay Foundation.
As part of the project Ben will be holding a writing masterclass at the Berry Theatre on August 1. The playwriting workshop will focus on creating a distinct theatrical world out of places that mean something to the writer.
Tickets for the masterclass are £15 and £10 for concessions and can be booked by calling The Berry Theatre box office on 023 8065 2333 or here.