Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Art and Commemoration

Arts Feature

Testimony Films- We Will Remember Them , BBC Cymru Wales & iPlayer , November-11-18
Arts Feature by Testimony Films- We Will Remember Them Three points of history were up for commemoration in 2018: women's suffrage, the founding of the National Health Service and the Armistice. In the arts of Wales the first was addressed with success, the second not for formal reasons, the last on stage and in art. The Torch toured “the Wood” and at Ynyslas a representation of a combatant's face was washed away by the incoming water.

Danny Boyle's event-artwork, one of 24 around Britain from Orkney to Cornwall, worked. It worked because of the power of metaphor. In London, at the Stratford Park, another artwork succeeded. The numbers in the Great War stupefy; human cognition is not built to imagine such a scale in concreteness. “Shrouds of the Somme” made the great numbers material. Its effect was deep.

Small individually crafted doll-like corpses, the exact number of casualties, were laid in rows. As with the poppies in 2014 around the Tower of London number was rendered into communicable symbol. The artwork was augmented with sound. In one corner a lone microphone was placed. A speaker read to the sound of low music. The words were simply names. The names of men, one after one, were enunciated and in their condition of spokenness remembered.

Television contributed in the manner of its medium. It cannot do metaphor but it can do edit and fact. BBC Cymru Wales has come in for a hammering in the winter issue of Planet. “Their many excellent journalists are being wasted on timidity and trivia”, writes Mike Parker, “…grim confirmation that we are far more readily fobbed off with PR than real journalism or, for that matter, real politics.” So too it is largely with the arts. The Sherman Theatre won itself an Olivier Award this winter. As a UK-wide recognition of theatrical quality it does not get any better. On the night itself not a mention made it to the BBC Wales’. After five days it merited a single paragraph on the website.

In 2016 an outstanding documentary on the art of the first World War was presented by Kim Howells with Steve Freer director-producer. It succeeded for the same reasons that Testimony’s contribution to this month of commemoration succeeds. The reasons are simple: a budget that allows the right number of locations, a range of informed interviewees, editing that has impetus but is unrushed, a good script, a narrative that follows a strong arc, music that is used sparingly, and a presenter who is both authoritative and empathic.

The subject of the film is the war dead and the cemeteries in the locations of foreign battle, 800 in Flanders alone. The Menin Gate and Tyne Cot are places of poignancy. Tended with care, they are a rooted part of ceremony and the cultural fabric. But their foundation, as Huw Edwards recalls, was a revolution in thinking and practice.

The film starts with locations in Wales. The magnificent tabernacle in Barry features. Enthusiasm to sign up for military service in the first period before conscription was stoked by preachers like John Williams who delivered his sermons in military uniform. The counterpart is offered by testimony from family members. George Musgrave, filmed in 2007, tells of a father in hospital with both legs lost and gangrene setting in. Lily Barron, filmed in 2009, remembers the last sight of a father headed for war.

The central figure in the narrative is Fabian Ware of the Red Cross. It was he, says Glyn Prysor of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who pressed for officers and men to be commemorated together. In the early days of the war the grandson of William Gladstone PM, also William Gladstone, was exhumed, repatriated and buried at the family estate in Hawarden in Flintshire. It attracted a huge press and he was the last officer to be given such treatment of privilege. The Imperial War Graves Commission was formed to commemorate all deaths.

The historical film footage unstintingly shows two soldiers being laid in a common grave. The narrative moves to the Versailles Conference and the taking of the Unknown Soldier to Westminster Abbey. The shrines in chapels and churches across Britain are paid for by private donations. The cenotaph at first a temporary structure is rebuilt in stone for the 1920 ceremony.

At the same time the opposition to the idea of cemeteries overseas is loud. Historian Alison Fell reads from a letter that is both anguish but also an assertion of rights. “The country took him”, declares the mother-author, “and the country should bring him back”. Sarah Anne Smith from Leeds is a mother whose son had been killed 2 weeks before the Armistice. She starts a campaign which attracts thousands of supporters. The situation of rancour is inflamed by the divergent policy elsewhere. “Once they are dead they belong again to the family” says interviewee Belgian historian Dominiek Dendooven. The French and Belgian governments decide on exhumation and repatriation to home town or village. “The idea of the government or the state or the Empire taking ownership of a person's body was very new and for many people very uncomfortable”, says Glyn Prysor.

Edwards visits memorials in Blackwood, Cadoxton, a tiny chapel in the Brecon Bacons, the Temple of Peace in Cardiff. In Barry there is a debate over a cenotaph for the 700 dead or a Memorial Hall. It is settled by choosing both. Jonathan Hicks is guide to the Hall, the names listed alphabetically without rank or regiment. With Emma West in Cardiff Edwards visits the Welsh Book of Remembrance, containing 35,000 names.

The film goes to Ypres, the Menin Gate and the St George's Memorial Church. Historian Vivien Newman tells of the first women who were brought over with charitable help and how they, touching the name of their child in the stone. Edwards makes a last pause by the headstone for Hedd Wyn. The last line of the script talks of “the one thing that never changes, the duty to remember.”

The credits include Christina Macaulay Commissioning Editor, Adrian Davies Executive Producer, Steve Humphries director-editor, Editor-producer Andy Attenburrow.

BBC i-Player at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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