The Somme comes to Glasgow: In a redundant shipyard, actors are recreating the experience of the young volunteers who went off to the trenches

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The Independent Online
ON THE concrete floor of the cavernous engine shed of the old Harland and Wolff shipyard in Glasgow a remarkable piece of theatre is in the final stages of rehearsal.

The redundant shipbuilding yard will be the stage for a promenade play about the First World War, intended not just to raise the consciousness of young Glaswegians about the naively romantic spirit in which their grandfathers volunteered for service, but also to involve the audience in the stench and chaos of trench warfare.

Beneath the industrial cabling and heating pipes of the engine shed the production will enable the audience to walk through mud as they follow the action from the recruiting yards of Glasgow to the fields of the Somme and see the entire space wreathed in yellow smoke, representing mustard gas.

Even those who sit will be on a mechanical moving block of seats that will travel with the action to the Western Front.

Overhead, a shipyard crane will support musicians and a trapeze artist, Deborah Pope, who plays the vision of the Angel of Mons, the best documented mass hallucination of modern times, which 10,000 Somme soldiers claimed to have witnessed.

The play, which opens in a fortnight's time, is titled The Big Picnic, a phrase taken from a letter home from the young poet Julian Grenfell shortly before his death, in which he wrote: 'I adore war. It's like a big picnic . . . I've never been so well or happy.'

The Big Picnic has been conceived, written and directed by Bill Bryden, an associate director of the National Theatre and a leading campaigner for a national theatre of Scotland. The company, Promenade Productions, is almost entirely Scottish.

Bryden was behind the other production staged in the shipyard, The Ship, in 1990, which celebrated Glasgow's year as European City of Culture with a climax that had a ship-like structure being launched from the stage.

This pounds 1m production will be even more spectacular. At one chilling moment the seats move backwards to reveal the barbed wire of no man's land, and the engine shed is filled with the sound of machine-gun fire, cutting down a group of Glasgow boys as pipers play in the background and the shadow of the Angel of Mons hovers over the battlefield.

The designer, William Dudley, has made full use of the shed's floor, which is almost the size of a football pitch; but as well as being an enthralling spectacle the play will provoke in its audience, perhaps for the first time, a wish to understand why their forebears were so in love with the idea of war that they volunteered for a conflict they could have avoided.

For the play tells the story of a group of men who enlisted from the Govan area of Glasgow, where the shipyard is; and shipbuilding was a protected occupation, so no one employed in the yards was obliged to volunteer. Yet they did in their thousands.

Nicholas Newton, the play's producer, says that the play will have a particular poignancy for local audiences: 'In Glasgow there were the 'pals' brigades'. Whole streets went off to the war together. Every street in the city and every household was marred by the Somme. It was said that in Glasgow they saw the streets falling in front of their eyes.'

Bryden, who was born into a Glasgow working-class family 52 years ago, says: 'My grandfather, who was at the Somme, told my father nothing about the Great War. And my father, a rear gunner in the RAF, told me nothing about the Second. I think that all of us have got to examine what our fathers and grandfathers did and to think we would have done the same.

'In this play we are talking about the people of Govan. Maybe it's a bit folky, maybe it's a bit local. But if you tell the truth about the local thing, it's universally true as well.'

The play has music and dance and is laced with Glaswegian humour. It would be impossible, says Bryden, to do anything about the west of Scotland without humour.

Surprisingly, Bryden has decided against using the traditional First World War songs, and is using an original score by the composer John Tams, with only a single guitar accompaniment.

Bryden says he drew inspiration for the project from favourite films such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory, the BBC documentary The Great War and the Stanley Spencer triptych Ship Builders on the Clyde. He wanted, he says, 'to create a kind

of theatrical war memorial'.

William Dudley adds that much of the plot is based on research in the archives of the Highland Light Infantry. 'I chose to have the performing space painted in white,' he says, 'to indicate the state of mind of those who rushed to join up.

'Never again would it be possible for Europeans to be duped by notions of the romance of warfare.'

Glasgow council aims to use the engine shed for more projects, possibly including work as a film studio.

(Photograph omitted)

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