by Jon Cronshaw
Northern Broadsides are set to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War with Deborah McAndrew’s moving new play An August Bank Holiday Lark.
Directed by Barrie Rutter, the new production will be staged at Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, from March 11 to 15 as part of national tour.
Taking its inspiration from a line in Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV, An August Bank Holiday Lark explores the impact of the First World War on a rural community in East Lancashire.
Set in the idyllic summer of 1914, everyone in the community is excited about Wakes week - a rest for field and mill workers, and a celebration of the Rushbearing Festival with singing, courting, drinking and dancing.
“It’s set in a place that has one foot in industry and the other in the hills above the mills - it’s a little bit more remote, a little bit more rural,” says Deborah.
“It’s not a place where people are hardened and urban in that way - they’re a little more innocent and rooted in a deeper past. It’s at the point in history where the First World War has just started, the recruiting vans are out and the first wave of people are signing up to fight.
“It never goes to the front-line - that’s been done so well so many times, why would you do it again?
“We wanted to find stories that haven’t been told before.
“It might seem odd, but the community is sort of indifferent to the war in the first instance - in the beginning a lot them don’t see what it has to do with them,” she says.
So far, the play has been well-received by audiences and critics alike, with one Sunday newspaper awarding the production five stars.
“The audience response has been overwhelming - it’s been very positive,” says Deborah.
“There’s a lot humour and a lot of humanity in the story, but ultimately it’s about the First World War, so there are moments of sadness and poignancy - you wouldn’t be honouring that experience of those people if you made it all a big joke.”
The issue of how to represent the First World War has become a contentious issue over the past month after Education Secretary Michael Gove lambasted writers who were critical of the war.
He especially criticised the acclaimed comedy Blackadder Goes Forth for its apparent ‘leftist agenda’, claiming that the comedy spread ‘myths’ about the First World War and should not be shown in schools.
“When I heard those comments, like everyone else I just thought ‘shut up Michael’,” says Deborah.
“It’s not a simple thing - what Michael Gove cannot deny is how shocking and tragic the war was for ordinary people.
“Men of all classes, ages and backgrounds lost their lives - it’s such a huge thing and to make such simplistic statements that we should all be celebrating their bravery and nothing more is just wrong.”
Northern Broadsides’ artistic director Barrie Rutter says that the tragedy of the First World War is not something that should be ignored or glossed over in the arts.
“Michael Gove really is a book burner - he’s just crass,” says Barrie.
“The First World War was absolutely gut-wrenching. There was so much hope and jollity going into it, but of course we know better now - it’s absolutely devastating.
“August 1914 was a hopeful time. People were looking to see the world and had their sights set on far horizons - they thought they’d be home by Christmas.”
Barrie says that Michael Gove’s comments are an example among many of the coalition government’s contempt for the arts.
“The current government are book burners par excellence,” says Barrie.
“For every pound the government spend on the arts, three or four pounds is returned to the treasury - so financially, there’s no argument to make all the cuts they have been.
“What they’re doing is attacking the imagination of the country.
“They’re washing their hands of the arts. They’re making a very slow Pontius Pilate attempt to rid itself of such a drop in the ocean, but one which creates such an imaginative leap in the nation.”
An August Bank Holiday Lark will be performed at The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, from March 11 to 15.