Oct 16th 2017
‘On the second week of my tour
The schedule then led me
To a Quaker In A Pear Tree…’
No, of course he wasn’t IN a pear tree – I just couldn’t resist staying as true as I could to the Christmas ditty…
Actors get nervous, edgy, on ‘First Nights’ when the press are in, especially the London press, or when they hear (they almost always DON’T want to hear) that a certain big-shot director or casting-director (‘Casting the next Harry Potter film!’ for example) is in the audience.
But to learn, as I did, that the granddaughter of the person whose life I am portraying in THIS EVIL THING, a man who was a whisker away from being executed for his principled stand against war – to learn that his granddaughter is in the audience…well…the feeling I had was somewhat different from knowing that a good performance could get me a bit part in the Harry Potter franchise – the feeling here was not of a career-bolstering opportunity presenting itself, but rather of a sense of humility and of responsibility. Bert Brocklesby had been willing to go ‘all the way to the last ditch.’ To risk his life for his beliefs. But I am merely acting out his journey to that last ditch. I have no way of knowing now, a 100 years later, whether I myself would actually have been capable of such courage as his.
I had in fact met Jill, the granddaughter in question, a year earlier at International Conscientious Objectors day in London. She was surprised and very pleased to hear that I was performing a play about the WW1 COs focusing on Bert’s story in particular. And gave me her and the family’s ‘blessing’ for my project. But she was unable to get to see the play until now – on Oct. 5th at 7pm. at Ackworth Quaker School (founded in 1779 in Pontefract). What would Jill think? Would the play live up to her expectations? Would it do justice to the epic story of the COs? I look and sound nothing like Bert. He was from south Yorkshire. I am from north London. He had a full head of hair. I just have a full head (of my lines, my moves, which shirts need ironing…).
I almost apologised to Jill in advance, wanted to offer excuses: ‘Look, you realise I’m over twice the age he was when the war broke out?’
But I’m glad to say I didn’t. And even more glad to say that she was very moved by the whole experience. She said it was his spirit that was the important thing about Bert – and that the play captured that. Phew.
She spoke a few words to the audience of adults and students afterwards. And she read a little from Bert’s last diary…which, in a wonderful act of trust and generosity, she said she would post to me a few days later so I could glean more nuggets from his life and feel even closer to him and his way of thinking.
Then in the Q and A, two rather intense teenagers posed me some challenging questions – ‘But sir, don’t you think war is inevitable?’ And: ‘Are you saying all wars are wrong?’ Big questions which required more than 20 minutes or so to unpack and explore. When I then learnt that these two boys were international students at the school and were from Nigeria and the Ukraine, I understood better why they might ask such questions.
So, to the pear tree. I was put up most generously by the Head and his wife, in their lovely Arts and Crafts house within the grounds. They are South African and Quakers. As Anton led me to the house, he pointed out the beautiful and heavily-laden pear tree growing up the side of it – a cascade of freshly-fallen pears at its feet. ‘Do help yourself…’
I was encouraged to attend ‘assembly/meeting’ the next morning in the very large Meeting House in the grounds, which serves as the Quaker Meeting House for both school and town. I was happy to be there and witness a very large number of students and teachers sitting in rich silence for a few minutes. I glanced up at some of the posters on the wall, and my eyes were drawn to the three words: ‘Be not afraid’. This tour is a little taxing and fatiguing at times, yes, but it has been exhilarating, too… in fact, it has gone rather worryingly well so far (no-one nicking the van, being the most obvious example of that). And there are still another nine weeks of travelling and performing. Well, just remember those words, I say to myself: ‘Be not afraid.’ And so I set off back to London for a brief weekend at home, the van full of my crates, my bag full of pears – which are sweet, oh so sweet…