Nearly 400 years ago, at the start of the English Civil War, Portsmouth found itself at the centre of a power struggle.
While Portsmuthians may be familiar and proud of many other aspects of their local history, this little-known episode is being brought back to life in a fascinating new play, Besieged.
The play takes the audience back 377 years to 1642, a time when most of Portsea Island was open land with only the odd farmstead to be seen.
But at its south-western corner, the fortified town, harbour and dockyard, was a strategically vital prize which both Royalists and Parliamentarians wanted to hold.
The performance takes place in The Square Tower – part of those very same fortifications.
And it has been written by one of Portsmouth’s best-known actors, writers and directors – Vin Adams – as part of his PhD in creative writing at the University of Portsmouth, and is being staged by the Southsea Shakespeare Actors.
Nick Downes is directing with Steve Blackham.
Nick found the play intriguing: ‘I do think that whole Civil War period, the English tend to look slightly away from. There’s two things that strike me – I think we possibly still feel a bit queasy about cutting the king’s head off - rightly or wrongly; then with historical events like Henry VIII watching the Mary Rose go down, or Portsmouth in The Blitz, or whatever, there is a very clear story, and we know what we’re supposed to think. But the whole Civil War period is rather more difficult to be clear about. For instance, which side do we think we’re on? What is the narrative here? Is it a divinely chosen king, unreasonably thrown off his throne and murdered? Or is it the forces of democracy flexing their muscles and the king getting in their way?
‘Because it’s not a straightforward narrative, it’s a bit like Brexit, we don’t necessarily want to talk about it because we don’t know quite what to think.
‘Generally speaking it tends to be a period people don’t know so much about.’
Does this make it rich pickings for a dramatist?
‘Definitely. The local story, the story about Portsmouth and the governor at the time is a really interesting one, and I think it’s a story people will be interested to hear about. And it’s a new story - we’re very familiar with a number of Pompey stories, like the Conan Doyle story, the Charles Dickens story, but this is a really interesting story about Portsmouth at a very historic period of time, when Portsmouth was very much at the centre of massively important events.’
And what’s it like being able to stage it at The Square Tower?
‘That’s a particularly exciting feeling – the events we’re acting out happened in and around the fortifications which the Square Tower is very much a part of.’
Both Nick and Vin acted in DeltaHead’s production of Waiting for Godot at the Square Tower last year, so it’s a welcome return for them.
‘It’s my favourite spot in and around Portsmouth to do theatre, there are other lovely venues, but the square tower is my favourite because it’s so atmospheric and it looks fantastic, and it’s a bit of a blank canvas, there are no preconceived ideas about what a play might be when you see it there – there’s no curtains, no proscenium arch, no stage as such, until you put one in.
‘I always feel that putting a play on there is like playing a football match and being one-nil up inside two minutes because you can’t lose with that wonderful place.’
Square Tower, Old Portsmouth