A question of conscience

First World War play examines tribunal decisions.

Women & Theatre in association with mac birmingham have worked with residents across the city to develop Theatres of Conscience, an engaging new production depicting the tribunal experiences of Conscientious Objectors in the First World War.

With five interactive performances to choose from over the weekend of 12th-13th March, Theatres of Conscience offers audiences the chance to experience a WWI community tribunal and observe men of conscription age come to request exemption from ‘joining the colours’. Audience members will act as the panel of tribunal members as men come to share their personal situations and reasons for applying for exemption.

The term ‘conscientious objector’ is generally identified with pacifism or a religious objection to war. In fact, it is a legal term (Military Service Act of January 1916) through which men could object to conscription for social, religious, business, professional or personal reasons. Tribunals were set up within the community in order to ascertain whether personal situations and beliefs complied fully with those detailed in the Military Act as reasons for exemption. The work of these tribunals “was of a most delicate and onerous character…… i’s decisions were invariably marked by a joint appreciation of the merits of each case.” (Portsmouth and The Great War, edited by William G. Gates).

Since January, project participants have carried out heritage research, exploring newly found tribunal records from the Staffordshire Archives, and undertaking oral history interviews with relatives of WWI conscientious objectors. They have then collaborated with theatre professionals led by W&T’s Artistic Director Janice Connolly to produce this exciting new performance piece.By sharing individual stories, W&T aim to shine a light on those who sought exemption and explode myths and stereotypes around the subject of Conscientious Objectors.

Janice Connolly, Artistic Director of Women & Theatre, said: “Our research has thrown up personal stories and accounts of tribunal cases which have raised an awareness of the impact that conscription had on individuals and families in 1916. We have been struck by the range of appeals from family responsibilities to deeply held religious and political views. By focusing on the tribunal process we have gained a deeper understanding of the complexities brought up by conscription and an increased respect for all those trying to do the right thing. By sharing these stories through performance, we have the opportunity to deepen our collective understanding of the history of World War One, with particular reference to the area of conscientious objectors.”

Performances will take place in the Hexagon Theatre at mac birmingham on Saturday 12th March (5pm & 7.30pm) and on Sunday 13th March (1.30pm, 3.30pm & 6pm). Tickets cost just £5 and are available on 0121 446 3232 or www.macbirmingham.co.uk. Suitable for over 12s.

A Theatres of Conscience Exhibition is also at mac birmingham throughout March, featuring research, creative responses and artefacts. Members of the public will have the opportunity to contribute relevant family stories to our body of research. A project blog can also be found at www.theatresofconscience.tumblr.com

Theatres of Conscience is the third in a series of successful WWI heritage projects developed by Women & Theatre. The Chocolate Soldiers (2014) looked at the experiences of young recruits in Birmingham while Women’s Work (2015) explored the lives of the female factory workers in the Small Heath area.

Theatres of Conscience is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund as well as by The Roughley Trust, William A Cadbury Charitable Trust, The Grimmitt Trust, The Cole Charitable Trust and The Harry Payne Trust.