This Northern Broadsides play takes its title from Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV, and the publicity flyers gave a good idea to expect. A close community in the pre-war golden summer, whose dreams and lives would be shattered by war. In other words – a presentation of the standard ‘futility’ interpretation of the Great War, what Elizabeth Vandiver calls ‘the old paradigm’. This was indeed roughly what we got at the Lawrence Batley theatre in Huddersfield yesterday, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to.
Northern Broadsides is one of my favourite theatre companies. Barrie Rutter founded it twenty-odd years ago with the aim of presenting Shakespeare and Greek tragedy in productions using muscular Northern voices – reclaiming the plays from southern smoothness. I remember how impressed I was by the first of their shows that I saw, the Alcestis of Euripedes, as translated by Ted Hughes. It’s a strange play, and the production had a directness that let the densely-packed words do their work with maximum effectiveness. I saw some other Greek tragedies too, but it is Shakespeare that brings out the best in them. It was the Broadsides that roped Lenny Henry in to try his hand at Othello, with genuine success.
Probably the production of theirs that I enjoyed most was The Wars of the Roses, in which the appropriately Northern vowels of the warring lords of York and Lancaster turned iambic pentameters into weapons. That production also made terrific use of the company’s trademark clog-dancing. Ever since Tony Harrison’s Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (which I saw at the National Theatre back in 1989, but Northern Broadsides have since revived it) Barry Rutter has realised the theatrical effectiveness of clogs, and the dancing that was a notable part of nineteenth-century working-class culture. In The Wars of the Roses, the battles were stylised and choreographed with stamping clogs and loud percussion. The effect was terrific.
Usually one could count on Broadsides productions being at least interesting and lively, even when they didn’t quite come off. Lisa’s Sex Strike was an updating of Lysistrata that didn’t quite work, at least for me, but was still a lot of fun.
In 2012, though, they did a production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector that I thought really poor. It’s a play that should have suited the Broadside’s informality and quick-wittedness, but all the characters were reduced to crude caricatures without a basis in reality, and the humour was leaden. Mind you, i can only speak of the first half, as I left at the interval, for only the second time in my life. The translator and director of that production was Deborah McAndrew, and since she was the author of An August Bank Holiday Lark, I went with forebodings and low expectations. (though I should add that after The Government Inspector, the Broadsides redeemed themselves last year with a superb production of Rutherford and Son, which went on to a season in London.)
In part, my low expectations were well-founded. The play contains many Great War clichés: people saying it will be ‘over by Christmas’; young men volunteering in ignorance of the cause, because they have heard the bands playing; the white feather given by a silly girl to a man with good reason for not going. As is usual in plays, the percentage of soldiers becoming casualties is considerably greater than the (dreadful enough) proportion of those who died in real life. None of the characters seems to have any idea of what the war is about; the conflict is shown as being as meaningless as it is destructive.
I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: this representation of the War is deeply patronising to the men who fought. Yes, there were doubtless some who enlisted early for the sake of excitement, but the great surge in recruitment came later, when it became clear that Mons had been a disaster, and the Army was in trouble, and when the German atrocities in Belgium convinced Britain that this was a war with a clear moral purpose, and men believed that it was their duty to fight.
On the other hand, there were those who enlisted early for a very different motive, because the beginning-of-war recession had led to their being laid off from work, and getting a soldier’s wages was the most realistic way of providing for their families.
Recognition of these two contrasting motivations, idealism and necessity, would do more justice to the 1914 recruits than what this play offers. Two young men enlist because they are excited by the band music and want adventure; their friend joins them because he can’t marry the girl he loves.
The War itself is not shown on stage, but is conveyed by the recitation of an extract from the War Diary of the Loyal North Lancashire regiment at Gallipoli. Its neutral prose allows the audience to at least guess at the realities of the battle:
Those who were able to retire in any sort of order formed in with Captain Mather’s company in the second line when another stubborn resistance was made, but the enemy were too strong…
(By the way, to hear a genuinely vivid first-hand account of Gallipoli, listen to the interview with Frank Brent, in the BBC Great War Interviews series.)
Of the three men who enlisted at the end of act one, two die and one returns seriously wounded. He meets his wife and son in a touching scene, and the play ends. No morals are pointed, no lessons are learnt, but there is simply a sadness.
If that was all there was to the play, it would be a poor thing, but what I have not yet made clear is that the first act is all about a village community preparing for the Rushcart festival. This is a custom (developed during the nineteenth century) according to which the mill-workers used their wakes week to make a festival out of the annual replacement of the rushes for the church floor. They build a cart and banner, and they dance traditional dances, in a spirit of rivalry with neighbouring villages.
Already by 1914 the tradition is declining (since workers can now head off by train for a holiday week in Blackpool) but the play’s first act offers the pleasure of seeing the cart and dance prepared for the festival, and the dance is the thing. in the second act, they dance, jubilantly, at a wedding.
The cast of twelve (not a weak link among them) make the villagers people that we care about, and above all create a sense of joy through the energy, snap and precision of their dancing, which lifts the performance above any criticisms that a carper such as myself have about the story’s obviousness.
The theme of modernity taking over from tradition is also a well-worn one, but it is given life here because of the sheer exuberance of the dance, which we see is the working man’s response to cramping mechanical work. I liked the passage where one of the soldiers imagines what ould happen if dancing invaded military routine:
Frank’s been teaching Will some of his fancy dance steps. They’ll have all on to stop themselves adding a rant step during drill. [….] Imagine what the Sarge’d make of that?
The play’s implication is that the War will finally kill off the folk traditions that were anyway declining. True enough. The Saddleworth Rushcart festivities faded away early in the last century, to be revived by antiquarians in 1975. I gather the Rushcart festival is a big event each year now, bringing together Morris and clog dancers of all kinds to share their music and dance together. Which sounds fine, but not the same as the strictly local festivity celebrated by the characters in the play.
One of my current projects is research into soldiers’ songs during the Great War, and I’ve been struck by the fact that the collections of such songs all show the influence of hymns and the music hall, but suggest that the soldiers did not sing folk material. Can this be completely true? Have the collections of songs been made mainly by members of urban-based regiments, who did not hear what the country lads were singing? Or had the culture of gramophone and music-hall already quite displaced the traditional songs? When Cecil Sharp, after all, went round collecting songs at the turn of the century, it was mostly, I think from the old, as remnants of an already disappearing tradition.
However that may be, the nearest I’ve come in the collections to a soldier’s song based on a traditional melody is the obscene ‘Tiddleywinks’, sung to the sailor’s hornpipe: ‘Tiddleywinks, old man,/ Get a woman if you can./ If you cannot get a woman/ Get a clean old man.’
Sometimes the soldiers must have sung traditional songs, but perhaps you needed to be interested in such songs to take note of them. Ivor Gurney (who of course was very interested in folk-song) remembered one occasion:
‘David of the White Rock’, the ‘Slumber Song so soft and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung – but never more beautiful than here under the guns.
I’d be grateful for any further examples of traditional songs being sung by soldiers.
Which is a digression from a piece that is already far too long and discursive.
To conclude: If you go to see ‘A Bank Holiday Lark’, be prepared for clichés about the War. But you will also find exceptionally good acting by a versatile cast (led by Barrie Rutter himself, who also directed). And you will see dancing that will lift your heart.
P. S. When quite a few rather middling actors and entertainers have become Sirs and Dames, when is Barrie Rutter going to be knighted? Or don’t the dispensers of patronage come up North to see theatre?