Photography: Ros Kavanagh
As this year marks 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, there was always the hope that we’d be able to perform the play in France as part of the centenary commemorations. We knew how special this opportunity would be, but making it happen was always going to be really difficult. Headlong and the Abbey Theatre had been doing site visits for over a year, talking to the French Embassy, the Irish Embassy, figuring out practicalities and sorting through some really complex logistics.
It very much looked like it wouldn’t be possible, but everyone absolutely refused to give in and with two weeks to go, we got an amazing call, confirming that we would be doing two special performances in France. The first would be a site-specific version of the show around The Ulster Memorial Tower, the place where the men of the 36th Ulster Division fought and fell. The second performance would be in Amiens, a town on the river Somme, close to the frontline, in the enormous Maison Du La Culture, a 1000 seat theatre. So two weeks later we all arrived in France for what would be an unforgettable week for all of us.
The Ulster Memorial was a hive of activity when we arrived and we faced a daunting task in getting the show ready for a performance that evening. We were just one event that was taking place over the week, and there were builders, TV crews, groundsmen, army parades, military bands all working and rehearsing. We'd decided to strip the production right back, do it without lighting and with only some of the sound, in order to let the atmosphere of the site and the significance of its history do the talking. We'd been on a visit a few weeks before, to scope out the grounds and to plan where we'd perform each section. The idea was to move the audience from area to area around the tower, to give a really unique experience. When we arrived, however, we soon realised that our plan might not work, as some of the areas we had originally earmarked were totally inaccessible now, due to the transformation of the site in preparation for the commemorations.
With a bit of quick thinking and some good fortune, we adapted our plan and worked out exactly how we would stage it. The good luck came in the form of some TV platforms that were set up for crew, which perfectly doubled as "the bridge" that we needed. Part one took place right outside the tower itself and on the steps and then we moved to the outdoor cafe area, which we cleared, for the second part in the barracks. We placed part three in a grassy area with poppy fields in the background, which nicely evoked the green and luscious locations in Northern Ireland. Part four was staged on the frontline, in amongst some of trees which overlooked the actual forest that the men came out from on July 1st 1916.
After figuring out the journey through the play, we had a short rehearsal, topping and tailing each section, to work out how we cued the actors in this new environment, and also how we'd usher the audience between the locations. The entire company adapted amazingly to the new environment, from Gemma our deputy stage manager, to Daphne our wardrobe mistress, to the actors who were having to negotiate a totally new journey. It was a team effort and there was a palpable buzz, as we were all aware what a privilege it was to be able to perform this piece here.
The whole day had been beautifully warm and sunny, but about half an hour before the show started, the heavens opened and it poured it down. Luckily, the producers had thought ahead and each audience member received a programme and a poncho! I initially felt a bit disappointed about the weather and the timing of the downpour, but as soon as the performance began, and the "ghosts" in part one made their way round the tower, it seemed incredibly apt.
The performance itself is something I'll never forget. Fifty or so audience members, including the playwright Frank McGuinness, watched the play in a unique context and there were several moments where the poignancy of the location really hit home. Hearing the lambeg drum resounding around the now peaceful fields of France evoked a sense of the enormity of what had happened here. The final moment of the play was incredible. The sun had almost completely disappeared and as the company roared out the final "Ulsters", the valley seemed to shout it back in an echo. Suddenly the images of the young Ulstermen who had been here 100 years before seemed clearer than ever.
After the show, there was a thoughtful atmosphere, as everyone contemplated what we'd just been part of. In some ways, it feels like we're still processing it. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we all felt incredibly lucky and grateful that we'd had this opportunity to be a part of the commemorations.
The next day we performed the show in the theatre in Amiens, which, although the space was huge, was in many ways a return to the production that we've been touring. In addition to our normal set, however, we had two big subtitle screens either side of the stage and one on the top of the proscenium arch translating the actors' words into French as they spoke. I was really pleased to see that the show could carry this space, which I think is testament to the script and the work of the actors and the creative team.
The theatre was absolutely packed. I wondered how different the audience reaction would be, especially as they were reading the subtitles alongside watching the action. The audience seemed to really connect to the play and embrace the significance of performing the piece so close to where the real life events had occurred. It received an incredible reaction from the audience. It was a brilliant end to a brilliant week.
When I got back to England and got out of the airport, to be greeted with the incredible scenes from Jeremy Deller's commenoration of the Somme we're were because we're here. It couldn't have been more perfect.