We Will Not Fight!
The Old Courtroom at Oxford Town Hall ceased to operate as a court in 1969 (it now functions as a meeting room), but recently the clock was turned back as UnderConstruction Theatre staged their We Will Not Fightbefore a sell-out audience of 80.
Take an idea and working draft from the Amnesty International group at Canterbury, have actor/writer Jeremy Allen stir and shake the script, involve experienced local director Lizzy McBain, cast your four actors for multi-roles and employ the authentic Courtroom space as your venue. The result: a 45 minute docu-drama setting out the salient elements of one WWI Conscientious Objector's story.
Bert Brocklesby (Charlie Russell) was a young Yorkshire teacher who, from non-Conformist, religious principles, refused the call-up for the Western Front in 1916. We see him undergoing tough questioning regarding the nature of his conscience at a tribunal, and later at a summary court martial at the Front. Following these investigations - from which he was rescued from under the nose of the firing squad by an 11th hour reprieving telegram from 10 Downing St - we witness a House of Lords debate between a supporter and a harasser of the 'conchies'.
Within these discussions, we heard evidence of the inhumane prison conditions Brocklesby and his 1,300 ilk were obliged to suffer (over 80 of them died in prison between 1914 and 1918, and many others were left with residual health problems that in some cases ended in suicide).
This was the skeleton of a more expansive drama, I felt. Rather than hearing about the conchies in prison, I would have liked to see it for myself. There was little or no scope for shades of grey in the black/white characterisations, with Lord Curzon in the House of Lords being particularly played for caricature. What pressure did Brocklesby came under from his school, friends and fiancee?. Did his parents - who had a successful grocery business (his father a JP) - and family suffer economically for his principled stance? This is not meant as a criticism; on the contrary, given scant resources and a one-day rehearsal schedule, Messrs Allen and McBain did their audience proud, with all four actors multi-tasking man- and womanfully. A future working up of the material into something more expansive would be very .
A 35 minutes discussion succeeded the play; I won't call it a Q/A session since informed audience members (a fair number of them Quakers) were able to supply insights that neither the play nor the panel members had touched upon. That said, we all gained from the contribution of Symon Hill from the Peace Pledge Union; a real fount of knowledge.
The play is part of the Commemorating the Peacemakers 2016 Festival, a programme of events celebrating resistance to war. The average age of Thursday's audience was notably high; no more than 10% can have been under 30. The absence of young Oxford people from an event dramatising an issue of cogent importance to the Left both then and now is extraordinary; inexplicable, even. After all, just 12 months after the events here came the bombshell that was the Russian Revolution, almost immediately followed by V. I. Lenin suing for peace. Today the Stop the War campaign retains influence. Must student political consciousness begin and end with accommodation fees and Cecil Rhodes statues?