A Kind of Urgent Hum

Refrain, composed and directed by Verity Standen, presented by Situations and the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Newhaven Fort, 9th June, 7.30pm

It’s impossible to know what’s in store, what’s on its way, in the arts as in much else. What’s certain is that things are changing pretty quickly. The transformation in the fields of artistic expression the internet has instigated are profound (to state the more than obvious). Youtube: everyone is a filmmaker; Twitter: everyone is a reporter, an opinion writer, a photographer etc. etc. If you have the temerity to express an opinion, dress a major character in a play as the US President for example, you are coruscated on as many information channels as exist and your major sponsors head for the hills, desperate to avoid the limelight.

Similarly, an artistic treatment of conscientious objection in a time of national emergency, like any kind of resistance, any questioning of the status quo, any deviation from the party line, such artistic treading on sensitive ground can be highly contentious. (We are confronting a national emergency of a kind right now in the disaster that is Britain’s current relationship with our European neighbours.)

Conscientious objection, as a legal and military state, is a function of conscription. Without conscription there is no objection. Britain, in 1916, facing crises on many fronts, not least the war in France, finding two and a half million volunteers insufficient, conscripted a similar amount for the general mincing machine that was the Somme. Out of these vast numbers, the total number claiming exemption was sixteen thousand (not so many in the scheme of things, much less than was sacrificed in a single day in battle in some cases). These roughly fell into two categories: those willing to do non-combatant duties, and those who weren’t. What’s more their grounds for so claiming exemption were again roughly divisible into either religious or political imperatives.

Waiting at Newhaven Fort for the performance to begin, on a lovely sunny evening, looking North over the Downs, it was striking to note that not so far away, over the hills or Downs, was Charleston, country retreat of the Bloomsbury set, found originally by Vanessa Bell as a place for Duncan Grant and David Garnett to do farm work and so fulfil the conditions for their own status as conscientious objectors. Regular visitors would have included Lytton Strachey (Duncan Grant’s cousin and one time lover), the most famous conscientious objector in the land, at work on his tongue-in-cheek take on four famous figures of the recent past, Eminent Victorians, and John Maynard Keynes, who had had a hand drafting the conditions for conscientious objection, and was something of a conscientious objector himself. (Bertrand Russel, perhaps not a card-carrying Bloomer, but certainly a friend, spent time in jail for his resistance to the war.)

Those who found themselves working on the roads in Seaford and Newhaven, not to mention those who were sent to Richmond Castle in Yorkshire (another performance venue of this production), were not so nearly connected to the establishment. In fact, conscription is clear proof that the government isn’t aligned with those it is governing. (Australia introduced conscription before Britain and continued it long after it had ended in this country, most notably to fight along side the Americans in Vietnam. The US also had to press its citizens into service in that war and others. In the early years of the Twentieth Century, those of Irish descent who had emigrated to Australia weren’t to be trusted to make a decision in the best interests of the ruling classes, usually of English heritage.) Conscription is a function and outcome of class and wealth. (Donald Trump and George W Bush are famous draft dodgers, exempted by virtue of their riches.)

So, tricky. To say it’s a complex theme is an understatement. Verity Standen takes an abstract approach: twenty or so men singing a cappella (literally as though in a chapel), vocalising, simply making a sound rather than singing words, suggestive, as the name implies, of religious music.

The effect, of following the men from room to reverberative room, was, at first, a little confusing (is this what we are meant to do?), a bit ghostly (it worked whether you were in the room with the singers or listening at a distance) and had a way of collapsing time, creating a meditative state that encouraged once again a sense of seeing the fort, the space, as active and alive, driven by a kind of urgent hum, fear in stillness and the removal of verbal meaning, no words, allowed a visceral re-imagining of what must have been a horrifying reality for those, whether combatant or non, the outright prohibition against exploring, or even hinting at, what everyone must have felt.

Back to the beginning, it’s impossible to know how art, expression will change in the age of continuous communication, but there is the inkling in Refrain that finding new ways for people to experience something together, to share something in the present, to be in the moment, a truly communal creation, may need new forms, new approaches. Words may be part of that which divides us, rather than unites.

Paul Corcoran