Sunday, 22 February 2015

In it together: our community play about World War One in rural England

Henry (Nick Wray) and George (Charles Johnson)

It's Sunday afternoon, it's pouring, and I'm exhausted. But I'm elated too, because we've just put on three shows of our community play. We created a story about a village like ours during the First World War, and it's been a truly amazing experience.

Amazing because:

we pulled it off - we told a familiar story that held our audiences' attention from the first chords to the last song

we made our audiences laugh and weep

and then they rushed to tell us what a pleasure it had been

it was a truly collective endeavour - almost sixty of us came together to create our play

The Morris dancers (Colleen Thirkell, Molly Byford, Jan Batchelor and Sue Harrison)
and people gave up their winter evenings and weekends to learn lines, rehearse, make music, source fresh pheasants, rig up lights, bake cakes, find a hundred year old wheelchair ...

and we sold out three shows

and, and, and ...

I'm a bit overwhelmed by what we achieved, but fundamentally, what I'm going to remember for a long time is that this may have been just a play, but it was a play about something really serious, and everyone in the room - audience and players - knew it.

Len (Oliver Hulme), Lily (Melanie Byford), Isabella (Sarah Saxty), Frank (Steven James),  Henry, Rose (Annabel Hunt), Robert (Eric Parker), John (Charlie Crisp) and Hester (Ana Garcia)
A hundred years ago, people just like us were flung into four years of horror and fear that none were prepared for. When I started to write the script what interested me most was what happened between people. We all know the facts of the war, but what did it feel like to a young woman whose fiancé comes home on leave unable to speak about anything he's been through since they parted? How did a bereaved father deal with his son's friend who's refused to fight? What did a young man who has seen his mates killed one after the other have in his head when the old men in the pub clapped him on the shoulder for doing his duty?

What caught me unawares were the people who came up to me, separately, after the shows. One was a mother of soldiers who has set up a support group for veterans. Another was a retired Navy officer. The third, a serving Major in the Army. They each thanked us for showing what it's like to fight, and to return home with that experience inside you.

And then there were the villagers who felt that this story was part of them too, because the people in it were people just like us. I'm so glad we got it right.

(All photos are by Rowan Purkis.)

Friday, 20 February 2015

Reading Edward Thomas aloud to an unsuspecting audience

I have a terrible memory, and it's this more than anything else that means I'll never be an actor. How on earth do they learn all those lines?

It's not for lack of trying that I can't remember lines - tonight I'm reading Edward Thomas's poem, 'As the team's head-brass', between a couple of scenes in our community play, and I've really made a go of learning it by heart.

I read it aloud in bed. I marched across the fields reciting it. I pinned it up in the kitchen so I could keep checking it.

No good. I learned the first stanza, but moving onto the second, I could feel those first hard-won lines falling out of my head again. So I'll be reading from the page.

But my attempts at learning the poem by heart have paid off. I'm a lot more confident about reading it, of course, but I've also seen so much more in the poem that I just slid over when reading it to myself.

Reading aloud to an audience, especially an audience that most likely don't read poetry from choice, really makes you think hard about what every line means. I want everyone in the room to feel the beauty of the poem, to see Thomas's images, to hear his sadness at leaving England for the front, and his knowledge that this is a place he loves so much it's worth defending.

Reading it as I first heard it in my head, the audience would hear little of this - I'm a lazy reader, I've found, reading too fast. Even if I read a poem aloud to myself, I don't go over and over a line that puzzles me, I say it just well enough to move on, and then move on. You can't do this when you're reading to other people - you have to work it all out, word by word, line break by line break.

In one of my attempts to tell the poem aloud from memory, I completely missed out the second line, 'The lovers disappeared into the wood.' It's easy to miss: the poem still makes perfect sense without it. But by leaving it out, you lose a rare smile in Thomas's poetry - he's glad they're off to make love and that their urge for life is so strong and unaffected by the death around them. At the end of the poem, the lovers reappear in a matching single line, just as Thomas is saying farewell to the scene before him and perhaps to his own life, and this acknowledgement that life will carry on, whatever happens, both softens the sadness and makes it more poignant.

After the lovers return - and this is easy to miss too - Thomas says 'The horses started and for the last time/ I watched the clods crumble and topple over/After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.' Because Thomas's style appears so conversational, the words 'for the last time' don't jump out at you - but here they are, at the end of a line, three lines from the end of the poem, leading us into a description of the breaking of earth with metal. Thomas is a subtle poet. He doesn't need to tell us what he sees ahead - he prepares the land and sows the seed, and leaves it to us to understand in the silence that follows.