Here the Dead Voices, an original creation by Harrogate’s 6:12 Theatre Company, presented its audience with a poetic, lyric and dramatic experience.
It was based around the experiences and thoughts of Mary Borden, an Army nurse.
It interwove the letters and journals of a variety of British, American and Irish soldiers and officers, as well as those in the German forces.
Michael Garside was the sole performer and he shifted between each of the voices, vocally and physically, his empathy and sympathy for each evident, from the comic and heart-warming Rifleman Bert Bailey to the injured dignity and barely suppressed anger of the German General Ludendorf.
The fact that we only had the one actor added an ‘everyman’ touch; while the voices were disparate and separated, these were experiences all these men lived through.
Moving around the sparse set decorated with the symbols of the battlefield; the barbed wire of No Man’s Land, duckboards, a twisted and splintered blackened tree, a tin trunk, Garside engaged the audience, challenging us with eye contact, reminding us that these men and women still need to be remembered for their suffering and sacrifices.
Most of the performance was quiet and restrained, befitting this very human approach to the war.
There were a couple of times when the sounds of the battlefield were unnerving and almost unbearable as we watched Scottish Sergeant Bill Hay try to dig himself into the earth to save himself from the enemy bombardment.
The play was dominated by the earth and mud of the battlefield, its colours, textures and deadliness.
When the face of a Prussian man in the mud was uncovered, it felt as if he was crying out to us to be released from his awful fate.
Garside’s boots were covered in grey mud stains and by the end of the performance he has mud on his hands and face.
The extract from Borden’s writing set in the hospital was difficult to watch as Garside physicalised the pain of the dying men and the release which the angel of death brings to them.
Borden’s acceptance and almost welcoming of this release for her patients was a hard to swallow. There are moments of contrasting stillness too as Garside sat, his face hidden in his hands as the strains of Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silent filled the space.
The black comedy of the ‘cookery programme’ utilising tack biscuits, condensed milk and jam was a delight and the heart-warming letters from fathers and husbands back home raised gentle smiles at their humanity and love. There was also a beauty in the words of the men as they referred to the chamomile and poppies along the trenches, their hopeful belief that even if they are seeing the dark side of the moon, it has another bright and beautiful side.
The whole experience was silently dominated by one of the There But Not There silhouettes, gleaming a soft and ghostly silver in the audience, a treminder that there were too many chairs left empty after the conflict which could never be filled.
The moving tribute at the end and the darkness which follows, allows these Dead Voices to echo around the space and our own heads.
Listen and learn.