The Bike Shed Theatre, 1 December
People think history is a collection of names and dates, but any historian will tell you that’s rubbish. History is as much about the people who make it as it is about what actually happened and there are always attempts to convey this through writing and education. I was fortunate enough to watch a brilliant example of history coming to life, and I feel privileged to have seen it.
The Exeter Blitz Project tells the story of Exeter in the Second World War from the perspective of those who were present. It touched upon the war and society, from the Blitz to evacuees and Americans moving into Exeter, and how they feel in the modern world. As a history student, it was a real insight into what life was like back then I felt as if I’d taken something from it at the end. If I’d seen a glimpse of the past. I’d say I learned more in that performance than from most books or TV programmes.
This is because nearly all of the script is composed of testimonies from various people who were aged from five or six to mid-20s at the time of the war. I can’t think of a better way to have done it as verbatim theatre is perfect to tell history. Despite being dressed in wartime costume they didn’t use the testimonies to script a scenario and it was all the better because of it. You could feel the age in their vocabulary and it was only at the start and end when the real voices overlapped with the actors that you felt they were different people. The anecdotes, little things like one person saying ‘pardon my French’ after swearing and attitudes to events humanises these people in a way that I think you cannot quite create with fictional characters.
Dramatically, the show wasn’t an attempt at reconstructing the past visually, as I imagined it might be. Most of it was just the actors talking about ‘their’ experiences. That was extremely powerful because it drew the attention to the words and personalities of the people themselves. What carried this were the actors themselves. The five actors alternated between about 13 people and it was difficult to match a name to an actor at any specific moment. That’s not because of the actors performances by any means; there were clear distinctions in voice and physicality between people . By the end of it you had an idea in your head of who these people were. To be honest names didn’t matter; I was absorbed in their performance to such a degree I didn’t need a name to know who the actors were.
The ambiance was punctuated by newsreels, music and sounds from the time which helped to recreate the feel of the era. There was even some dance, which added a bit of movement to the piece but not as to detract from the spoken words. The intimate nature of the Bike Shed helped greatly with this, (it felt like I was having a conversation) and without big scenery or stage, it emphasised the natural and emotional performance of the actors.
However, it was more than just performance for me, it was a dialogue between the past and present. For just two hours, five people became the voice of a generation. One day the stories told in this play will become just that but for now the human factor, the bit that’s hard to discern from a textbook, is alive and kicking. It’s a human representation of wartime Britain, and it’s a true window into the past.
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