We asked Tricia Thorns, the well-known director of a number of impressive local productions including ' Passion Play 2000, 'Peer Gynt' and an open-aid production of 'Twelfth Night' how she came to produce her three series of World War I plays which received such critical acclaim in the national press.
How did I become interested in this period? My passion and pity was aroused in the theatre, when I was Acting / ASM. I was to be "on the book" for Journey's End by R.C. Sherriff - a very well-known play which you will probably be familiar with. It has had enormous success recently in the West End.
At that time, I didn't know it, didn't really know anything about World War I - scandalous! My History at school skipped from 1066 to the Fox-North Coalition of 1783 and the abruptly ended as I bypassed History and did a project on Egyptian Theology.
So I was 24 when I first met "our boys" in this vivid fictional - but oh so true - account. I wept through the rehearsals. I wept through the show, giving my professional calls - "Stand by Mr Cowley, this is your call Mr Cowley, thank you." My (not yet) husband was playing the young officer Raleigh. So I was touched through theatre, my great love and passion, which awakened me to the horror of this War and the day to day existence of the boys.
So, I felt, what more natural than to awaken others (if they needed it - no!) through theatre. Because although the account is fictional it is true. Let's do Journeys End again! But wait - are there other plays, undiscovered, contemporary to the War? So we went, Graham (now my husband) and I, to the British Library. And we found a treasure trove of plays, buried, not performed since the 1920s, and the first - excitingly! - repressed by the Government, because the truth about the War would be too dangerous to let loose on the British Public. Too morale-weakening. The truth must be suppressed - about the common humanity between the German 'Fritz' infantry and our Tommies. It was this fellowship that gave birth to the Christmas Day Truce in 1914. The swapping of Christmas puddings, the communal carol-singing. And the top brass suppressed it.
Strangely, our finding these plays coincided with the invasion of Iraq. The first two were by Miles Malleson - well known in his later years for being a sweet old actor playing, for example, the vicar in the film of The Importance of Being Earnest, but in his youth a firebrand, a tiger. He wrote two plays based on his own experience as a soldier: 'D' Company, set in a barracks in Malta early in the war, where the new soldiers are jingoistic and full of confidence; and Black 'Ell, set just after the Battle of the Somme, where he revealed the true horror of the war and his fellow-feeling with his German opponents.
Well. It was, because Miles Malleson was more eloquent than me, and our first production was mounted quickly at the Soho Theatre, to sing our anti-war song. Our brief run sold out, and accolades from Harold Pinter and other theatre luminaries gave us encouragement to carry on. The first season, Forgotten Voices from the Great War, followed at the Pleasance Theatre, consisting of the two Miles Malleson plays and between them Brigade Exchange, a German play also written by an ex-soldier, also discovered in the British Library, and a most important injection because we saw the same war through their eyes - the dreadful, slaughtering English! It had never been performed on stage, being a radio play with some 25 characters. We did it and came to identify with their lives. Not German v. English - poor boys doing their duty, blindly, madly, following orders from the top that didn't know what was going on. By chance, the playwright's grand-daughter saw it, and we learned that he had escaped Nazi Germany to England in 1938, with his Jewish wife. She was amazed, and wept.
So what we're really doing in Two's Company is to bring back to life the treasure that we found in 2002 - 12 wonderful forgotten plays. The first two productions - Forgotten Voices from the Great War at the Pleasance and What The Women Did at Southwark Playhouse were both triple bills of short plays. They were followed in October 2005 by a full-length play, Red Night at the Finborough Theatre.
In rehearsal for the plays we had maps showing where the Front Line was and how it moved, books and tapes of old soldiers telling their true experiences, anything that would help the actors 'connect' directly. Old film footage of the battles of the Somme and the Ancre loaned from the Imperial War Museum were studied. Military advice and practice to show cast members how to march, crawl, hold rifles. I had a three day workshop before the last play when I loaded up the actors with 60lbs of bricks, the weight of an infantryman's pack, and sent them marching , running, lying down - so they would physically understand what it was like.
What the Women Did focussed on the women left behind and their own personal losses and tragedy: husbands and sweethearts dead - or no opportunities left for marriage, love, child-bearing. A whole generation of young men gone and a whole generation of loss for the women. One of the plays was particularly dear to me, Handmaidens of Death, about the munitions workers - the 'girls with yellow faces'. It's a strange and powerful play about these women (and their men), and I'm not going to give away the ending - because you have a chance to see it! We were sold out at Southwark Playhouse, and we are producing it again at 4.30pm and 8.30pm on Saturday 18th March in St Barnabas' Parish Hall in
Dulwich Village. Tickets £10 (concs £6) from The Art Stationers, Dulwich Village.
For the future, many things - the letters home of a young officer, killed in 1917, two days after his 21st birthday, which I am adapting into a one-man play; and a surreal, operatic play, with original music, about a Red Cross nurse searching for missing men in 1918.