Friend or foe? Voices from World War One

Century-old script receives world premiere as forgotten Birmingham anti-war play revived.

A controversial tale from one of the founders of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and a never-before performed script are among the 100-year-old plays being revived by Midlands’ theatre company FRED for Friend Or Foe?

Penned during World War One, these highly charged and emotional one-act plays reveal how writers during the period challenged authority, and questioned the roles of both men at the front, and women at home.

Born in 1882 and closely associated with the Dymock Poets (whose number included Rupert Brooke and Robert Frost), writer John Drinkwater became Stage Manager of the newly opened Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1913.

Written three years into WW1, Drinkwater’s X=0: A Night Of The Trojan War finds opposing soldiers openly discussing the folly of war. It was a highly contentious subject, yet the play’s historical setting helped it avoid censorship, and local newspaper reviews were initially positive.

However, X=0’s message about the human cost of war soon resulted in a backlash, with the Birmingham Mail later stating that Drinkwater was “apparently oblivious of all that England went to war for,” and called for the writer to experience the front line first hand.

Published in The Englishwoman magazine in 1917, there is no record of The Munition Worker ever being staged, making FRED Theatre’s performance a much delayed world premiere.

The play was credited to ‘Alec Holmes’, the male pen-name of feminist writer Lady Aimée Byng Hall Scott, and taps into the suffragette struggles of the time. Unlike the other one-act plays on the bill, it also takes a pro-war stance as a though female factory worker, unable to fight on the Western Front like her male counterparts, resolves to work herself to death, making bombs, as her contribution to the war effort.

Invalided out of military service, actor and writer Miles Malleson was an outspoken supporter of the pacifist cause. Written in 1916, Black ‘Ell explores the distance between those at home and those who’ve experienced the horrors of war. As a young recruit is haunted by the killing of an enemy solider, his parents and fiancée prepare a hero’s welcome. The play was banned under the Defence Of The Realm Act, and not performed in the UK until 1926.

FRED’s artistic director Robert F. Ball says: “All three plays are fascinating and give us a real insight in to the thoughts and feelings of people who lived through the Great War.

“Especially interesting though is the previously unperformed The Munition Worker which presents a view of the war, and a woman’s contribution to the war effort, that makes us feel distinctly uncomfortable at the start of the 21st century. These powerful plays also demonstrate the playwrights of the war have a voice which was equal in strength to that of the more famous War Poets.”

The Friend Or Foe? triple bill can be seen at @AE Harris, The Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham from 31 March-2 April 2016, tickets £12.

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