New Town Theatre Aug 4-28th
January 1916: Bert Brocklesby is a young schoolteacher, and preacher at his local Methodist church; Bertrand Russell is one of the greatest mathematicians of his time. With the advent of military conscription their worlds are about to be turned upside down.
THIS EVIL THING is the compelling, shocking and inspiring story of the men who said no to war: a rarely told story involving a dizzying journey from a chapel in Yorkshire to the House of Commons; from an English country garden to a quarry in Aberdeen; from a cell in Richmond Castle to a firing squad in France.
With military conscription still in force in many countries today, and prisoners of conscience still languishing in jails, the questions posed by THIS EVIL THING are as relevant and urgent as they were one hundred years ago.
What was the inspiration for this performance?
I have been researching the subject of Britain's First World War conscientious objectors for about five years now,
and concious that there was going to be so much in the way of commemoration during this time that focused on those who fought in the war, I was passionate to create a piece of drama that told the far less well-known story of the war resisters, those who said no to war - at great risk to themselves.
It is an intensely fascinating story involving as it does, not only the C.O.s themselves and their struggle to be exempted from military conscription, but the men and women who couldn't be called up themselves, but devoted themselves and their time during the war to supporting the C.O.s cause - for example, Bertrand Russell - who himself was imprisoned in 1918 for six months, for an article he wrote.
The story is so much about the preservation of Britain's great traditions of freedom of speech and thought, and the ways in which these were under threat of serious erosion because of the war and its insatiable demands.
How did you go about gathering the team for it?
I chose a director who had a track record of solo work, Ros Hutt, who was intensely sympathetic to the subject matter, and a sound designer Mark Noble and stage manager Jane Andrews who I had worked with recently and who I felt would make excellent contributions to the piece.
My set designer Mark Friend had designed a previous solo play of mine, but I only found out in the last week or two, while he was designing THIS EVIL THING, that he is in fact a Quaker -
they of course being so significant in the peace movement during WW1 and indeed many C.O.s being Quakers. I guess that's what's called serendipity.
How did you become interested in making performance?
I have been making plays since the age of 8, for my family and my friends' families, and then at school for my class mates,
and I was subsequently fortunate to go to a comprehensive school which had drama on the curriculum (who remembers those days?)
and had two excellent drama teachers.
I went on to train as an actor at Drama Centre, London, in the mid-70s, where I first came across the work of Rudolf Laban, and the monologues of the American character actress Ruth Draper.
In terms of making solo work, my first piece was TOMORROW WE DO THE SKY at the Traverse in the 1991 Festival, followed by SOUP, Fringe First Award winner at the Pleasance at the 1995 Festival - I wanted to create new and original pieces of solo work which broke the bounds of 'The Letters of Thomas Hardy' type solo pieces, which make rather dull theatre - I wanted to create dramatic plays with many characters, but which could be performed by just one person.
Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
In THIS EVIL THING, the script kept changing subtly as we worked, we realised we wanted less direct audience participation, less direct narrative, and then when the nine individual wooden crates, custom-built, arrived, they exerted their own unique influence on the direction of the production, having a resonant poetic life of their own.
I haven't previously had the experience of working so early on in the process with the final 'set', so this was something different and quite special. I love these crates and every shape and location they conjure up.
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I hope they will be taken on a roller coaster journey which will move, shock and inspire them - as they learn about a part of the First World War which is rarely told.
Even if they are not pacifists, I hope they will be led to question their own stance on war, peace, national defence, in the light
of the great courage of the men who said no to war.
What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
We did consider getting audience directly involved in certain group scenes, so they could briefly experience what a C.O. went through, for example, at a tribunal hearing where they would be appealing for exemption from military service.
But these moments seemed to hold up the thrust of the story and could well have set the wrong tone, or even alienate certain members of the audience. Instead we have opted for making the story as gripping, fast moving and suspenseful as possible - which the actual events related were.
Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
The great American solo dramatic monologuist Ruth Draper (most famous between the wars) has been an important influence -
she was an influence on British performers like Joyce Grenfell.
The idea of peopling a stage with scenery and people and yet all that is actually there is the solo performer is to me an exciting challenge, and links back to the very essence of storytelling.
The multi-character nature of my work also invites terms like shamanic or shape-shifter, or the more common 'chameleon' -
certainly, sometimes, it does feel like one is possessed by many different personalities.