Last week in Westminster a group of people were listening keenly to the words being spoken, giving their undivided attention to the drama unfolding before them, and when they got the chance, asking incisive, intelligent questions.
No, this wasn’t in the House of Commons (alas), but in the hall of Harris Westminster Sixth Form College – located in a former Ministry of Justice building a stone’s throw from Parliament – where the first performance in 2019 was taking place of This Evil Thing, my play about Britain’s WW1 conscientious objectors.
I was here thanks to one of the teachers, Frances Sleap, who I know from Wandsworth Quaker Meeting House, and who having seen the play when I performed it there in 2017, thought it would be ideal material for students at Harris Westminster to experience.
On the day however the omens weren’t great. Neither for the House of Commons, nor for my play. The narrow little access road down to the college’s basement area, from where I could unload my crates and props, was blocked…by men doing some unblocking. Their own larger van was down there, parked near two drains which were wide open and which they were spending most of the day ‘attending to’.
This meant lugging my crates a good fifty yards or more, by hand, just to get them to the basement area and then along a passage into a lift up to the college’s hall. It took a little while to rally some willing students to help but in the meantime I carried crates down the little road on my own, squeezing past the drains and the numerous…well, what were they? Brown dollops of…oh, great…that’ll get me in the mood for the trenches alright. As for the stench…crikey! Couldn’t put a hanky over my nose as both my hands were holding crates.
But students come to the rescue and soon we are all making our way down the access road carrying crates and treading gingerly past Sewage Hill and Dungheap Hillock.
To finally get everything inside the college’s somewhat airless and overly air-conditioned hall was a great relief. My dressing room was a not overly-spacious staff toilet, but at least it was clean.
But would there be an audience? Frances had repeatedly put the word out to students in recent weeks but emphasised to me that attendance at the event couldn’t be made compulsory.
‘There’ll be at least a few students though, won’t there?’ I asked her, hopefully.
‘Impossible to say,’ was her answer.
My old friend John had agreed to operate sound for me and being a Buddhist he seemed to take it all in his stride – including the sewage (not literally, thankfully).
But come 4.30pm, students did in fact begin to fill the small hall. 65 of them including staff. Well, that’s very respectable, I thought. And so off we went, on the journey of Bert Brocklesby and Bertrand Russell and all the other pacifists of like mind during the First World War.
And in some scenes, while MPs across the road at that very moment were debating and confronting each other over Brexit, I was portraying MPs from 100 years ago debating and confronting each other over the introduction of military conscription.
Now, the attention in the hall wasn’t completely undivided perhaps: the air-conditioning was far too noisy and at the end of a long school day the odd crisp packet was in evidence, and a few students seemed unable to stifle huge yawns – which, as there was no theatre lighting and they were sitting quite close gave me a splendid view of their tonsils – but I didn’t take any of this personally. I could also clearly see many students leaning forward drinking in the arguments, wanting to know what happens next in the drama. They seemed to be very much engaged with it all.
It’s really refreshing to perform the piece to young people who are far less invested in the content of the play perhaps than older people who may have had relatives who were COs etc. Their perspective on the dilemmas presented is often very surprising and unexpected – I only wish I could play to more schools and college audiences.
And their response at the end was heartfelt, but they did make me laugh when I acknowledged John and his operation of the sound cues and they turned and gave him a big cheer. That was unexpected too.
Those who could stay for the Q and A had some great and challenging questions – one of them, a religious studies student, asking how a man claiming to be a Christian, whether he was a conscientious objector or not, could really justify refusing to help wounded soldiers, on the grounds that they would only be sent back to the front to resume killing.
Soon it’s time to pack up – and only then do I remember the sewage. But thankfully it’s been cleared and the drains are closed up again. And so I drive away from Westminster and its seething cauldron of debate and disputation towards the relative calm of Wandsworth and my flat overlooking the common.
Next day however, it’s back to the north London borough I grew up in, Haringey, and another performance organised by the Haringey First World War Peace Forum – who have done great work in bringing to people’s attention the 350 conscientious objectors in WW1 from this borough. A plaque to commemorate them will be going up outside the Salisbury Hotel in Green Lanes on May 15th.
I’m performing at Park View School, not much more than a stone’s throw from the house I grew up in near Turnpike Lane and from the Catholic church I attended as a boy. It’s a school auditorium with, once again, very noisy air-conditioning – which is in fact the heating system. Despite the weather having been a little milder the heating is on full and the theatre is like a sauna when I enter it. We throw open the side doors to let in some air and are greeted by the sweet sound of a flowing river.
‘Is that the New River?’ I ask Norman, the very helpful man assisting us.
‘No, it’s the old generator. You’ll need to shut the doors if don’t want the noise.’
‘But what about the heat?’
‘Hmm, yes. Bit of a dilemma for you.’
I don’t mind sweating buckets, but I’d rather the audience didn’t – and the heat would be liable to make them fall asleep. We decide to shut the doors just before we start.
And we can’t start till the Mayor of Haringey arrives – Mayor Gina Adamou, replete with her jangling mayoral chains. When she does arrive, I’m introduced to her and I let her know I’m a Haringey boy born and bred.
‘Ah, so you’ve come back have you?’ she asks me, hopefully.
‘Yes, but just for the night,’ I say. Then I’ll be heading back down ‘sarf of the river’.
It’s a good job that this being a solo play and the person performing it being me, I don’t get to spend any time in the dressing room during the evening – because it’s easily the smallest dressing room I have ever known. Well, its basically an alcove behind the playing area.
The key to the door to what promises to be a larger room can’t be located. I recall the enormous space I was given to change in at Norwich Friends Meeting House last November. Ah, those were the days…
Determined not to let John steal the show tonight with his sound cues, I put a screen up around him this time. Which may seem a bit harsh – but in fact I do this because the sound desk in this theatre is on the actual playing area – and to see John and the sound equipment alongside myself and my wooden crates could prove a tad distracting.
So he is covered up – mostly – (yes, he is lurking behind the screen on the left ) – only emerging at the end when I call him forth to receive his (rapturous) applause.
60 to 70 folk have turned up and all goes really well – even the heating shuts off about halfway through the play and the noise from the generator can’t be heard at all.
A good number of people stay for another excellent Q and A, where one person asks about the plight of animals in the First World War – the fact that they had no say in whether or not they were ‘conscripted’ and used in the army and in the trenches. The questioner wanted to know if we were aware of any COs having shown, in addition to concerns for their own rights, concern for the rights of animals not to be corralled into a war situation against their will.
Fascinating question – to which none of us had an answer.
Afterwards, many folk having helped me pack up, I thank John for his Zen-like-calm in cueing and I thank the Haringey First World War Peace Forum for organising this 111th performance of the play, after which I leave Haringey and head back down sarf of the river.
Next stop for the white van – two performances on Easter Sunday in Bristol, in the medieval Crypt of St John the Baptist Church in Broad Street, where I’m told the temperature, even in April, won’t remotely resemble a sauna – more like a fridge-freezer.
Wrap up warm, folks!