Play brings soldier’s story out of obscurity

A lot has happened in the 18 months since Cloud Nine Theatre Company staged the premier of my play Death at Dawn at the Linskill Centre in North Shields.

The play was originally commissioned by the (then titled) Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Group, and there was great celebration when the piece won two awards and was shortlisted for a further two.

This upbeat mood was muted by the sudden and shocking death at the age of 47 of the play’s director Jackie Fielding, among theatre’s most talented practitioners in the north east (one of the awards was specifically for Jackie’s brilliant direction).

There’s a determination that this revival, which opens tomorrow (Friday) at Wallsend Memorial Hall, should be an homage to Jackie’s work. The new director, Neil Armstong, has worked with Cloud Nine over 15 years and was a friend of Jackie’s. This second run will be a celebration of all the creative excellence Jackie Fielding brought to the play.

Wallsend is the kind of area professional theatre companies usually ignore. I can’t remember the last time a large-scale piece was performed in the town, which makes our five days there a special challenge. Cloud Nine rarely performs in traditional theatre venues, and we’re confident the good folk of Wallsend will come forward to see the play in numbers, just as audiences did in North Shields in September 2014.

One of the most pleasing aspects for me back then was people’s astonishment as they entered the ‘auditorium’. Only a small percentage would have experienced theatre-in-the-round, where the audience sits round all four sides, there is no traditional ‘fourth wall’, no scenery, and actors are required to project out round 360 degrees.

Playing ‘in-the-round’ requires us to construct an entire theatre edifice in an empty hall, first in Wallsend then the following week in the Great Hall of the Discovery Museum in Newcastle. The decision to do the play this way was Jackie Fielding’s and at the time caused some consternation as we had anticipated a traditional format. Suddenly all the goal-posts had moved, yet it proved not only a radical, but also an inspirational change.

Audiences felt sucked into the play’s growing intensity as the inevitable fate of the young North Shields soldier William Hunter unfolded and events took their terrible course.

Because I guessed audiences would know the subject matter and the outcome, I decided the play would both start and end with Hunter’s death, and it’s that sense of inevitability as we follow his fortunes from North Shields to Montreal, Liverpool and, finally the Western Front that adds to the drama.

Theatre-in-the-round also brings a strong intimacy and ability to relate to characters much more than if they are beneath a proscenium arch. At times the experience can feel almost that of a voyeur.

Few plays concern themselves with real unknown people from history. Characters are unusually made-up or famous. William Hunter was neither. Had it not been for the diligent research of Alan Fidler and his WWI Commemoration Group research team, the young soldier’s name and story would have remained in obscurity.

Hunter claimed to have been underage when he signed up. In virtually every similar case this saw the death sentence commuted to prison and hard labour. No reason was given why Hunter was not spared. Part of the play’s task was to find such a reason, albeit of the author’s invention.

Most of the original cast are still on board for this revival, as are the original production team.

Death at Dawn is a play rooted in the region, but also I hope with a universal relevance, being both an examination of the army’s policy of killing its own men and also a love story.

It can be seen in Wallsend from February 19 to 23, and at Newcastle Discovery Museum from February 26 to March 2. Tickets are available from Wallsend, North Shields and Whitley Bay libraries, online at cloudninetheatre.co.uk or on 0191 259 2743.