The first day of rehearsal at our Brixton base was the usual mix of excitement, nerves, biscuits and tea. What was incredible, however, and a nod to the journey we are about to embark on, was the number of people in the room! Along with the cast and creative team, there was writer Frank McGuineess, the whole Headlong gang and co-producers from the Abbey Dublin, Glasgow Citizens Theatre and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse. The room was buzzing with so many different people and so many different accents. Straight away, we had a sense of the scale of this project and all the different communities we will bring the work to.
We are now a hundred years on from the Battle of the Somme. What has been interesting this week is that the more we research, the more conversations we have, the more we realise that it is actually no time at all. The effect of that war is still being seen today, especially in Northern Ireland, the homeland of the characters. The play draws on a vaste political and social context that we’re unpicking as we go – not only World War One itself but also the history of Ireland's journey to becoming a republic, the Easter Rising and the troubles since. Almost all of us had a personal anecdote, whether it be a great grandfather who was at the Somme or men who grew up during the Troubles, so this feels very alive to us all.
Having Frank in the room and being able to work through the play with his insight has been brilliant. Frank said that one of the reasons he wrote the play stemmed from when he was lecturing in Coleraine and during a particularly dry session, he looked up frustrated and saw all the young lads in the room and realised the impact if all these boys were to be lost to war. That really struck a chord. As he told the story, I looked around and had exactly the same thought about the men in our company. The scale of the war was unparalleled and the level of human sacrifice is unforgettable.
Approaching the research for this piece can feel quite overwhelming. It's jam packed full of references from the battle of the Boyne to the Irish mythological hero for Cuchullian. A lot of the first week has been about getting our heads around where we are, where we are coming from and where we are going to. We’ve had brilliant visits from John Evershed and Richard Hughes, who talked about the social context of Ireland and the intricacies of the Battle of the Somme. The play was first performed in 1985 during a crucial moment in the Irish peace process. John pointed out that, despite all the efforts to resolve the conflict in Northerh Ireland, the play still feels just as relevant today, if not more so. Formerly, World War I has largely belonged to the history of Northern Ireland and despite the fact that hundreds of men from all over Ireland were involved in the fighting, the Republic of Ireland has received little focus. This history often not taught in Irish schools, due to the subsequent split from Britain. However, there is currently a drive from the Republic of Ireland to remember the war, its fallen and crucially, its shared history fighting alongside Northern Ireland. It’ll be fascinating to see how people receive the piece in the current context.
We also had an incredible tour of the Imperial War Museum and the World War I exhibition by William Fowlis, which was fascinating. It really helped bring to life a lot of the information we’d been reading about. Everything on display in the exhibition is a genuine artefact: from the imposing weapons, to the diaries, bloodied tunics and bullet-shot wallets. This period of history certainly doesn’t feel dusty or ancient but incredibly human and terribly sad. Despite the huge amount of research we’re doing, it’s also great to be reminded of something that the director Jeremy Herrin said very early on: “This is not a history play. It’s an emotional enquiry”.
As well as working through the play and gathering research, we also had a visit from George Howard, an Army reservist, who gave the guys an insight into what training would have been like during that period. A lot of it was focused on building physical fitness and feeding them up. Many men actually ate much better in the army than at home.
George put the cast through their paces! Squats, sit-ups, press-up, wall-sits, crawls and sprints. It was exhausting just to watch! What this quickly generated, however, was a strong sense of camaraderie between the guys as they willed each other through assault courses and endless circuits. By the end, they’d really been through something together. You can really start to imagine them as an army division and hopefully we can build on this throughout the process.
A great, densely packed, challenging week. Onwards!