New Town Theatre
4 – 28 August (not Tuesdays)
When the first World War broke out, army enlistment was voluntary: as the war progressed, and the number of men killed escalated [over 19,000 men lost their lives on the first day of the battle of the Somme] it became increasingly clear that conscription of some sort would have to be introduced: many people were strongly in favour of it, but a sizeable number of men were prompted by their consciences to oppose being involved in any way in killing their fellow men.
Using the verbatim reports of conscientious objectors and the words of Bertrand Russell and others, Michael Mears has written a horrifying clear account of the treatment meted out to people whose only crime was to say “you can’t force a man to murder against his will!” Opposing viewpoints are stated by those who consider the ‘conchies’ to be vile, unpatriotic, cowardly or just plain mad: and against this background we see the heroic struggle of men who refused either to take part in any way in the ‘war effort’, and in doing so refused to use violence in word or deed and the appalling, cruel and degrading treatment meted out to them.
Michael Mears’ one-man show brings to life a host of characters: the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway and other founder members of the No-Conscription Fellowship – and people like Bert Brocklesby, a young teacher and Methodist lay preacher from Yorkshire, who suffer imprisonment, physical and mental abuse, and physical punishment – and still hold firmly to their beliefs that they will not take any part in the military machine. We see the civilians and military personnel who make hideously clear their contempt and hatred for these “cowards”, their refusal to listen to any attempt to show the pointlessness of meeting violence with more violence, and the delight many of them take in making the ‘conchies’ suffer as much as they can, even to the point of threatening to kill them.
While the conscientious objectors are in Britain, they are not subject to military discipline – but by moving them to France, they come under its rule, and so can be court-martialled and shot for disobeying any order given to them: many of them are prepared to face losing their own lives rather than play any part in taking someone else’s.
Michael Mears’ father and grandfather were both ardent pacifists, and Michael is one too. He is also an accomplished actor: with face, voice, gesture and a few simple props (hats, jackets, a pipe) he creates a staggering range of characters, bringing real people memorably to life, and asking us to consider what we might have done in their situation – it’s relatively easy to be a pacifist in the UK in 2016, but would we be prepared to die for our principles?
The audience were moved and challenged by this magnificent tour de force of acting. I urge you to see it!