A great deal of it is excellent

Not About Heroes

Mon 4 Aug 2014

The fourth of August marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. 100 years on, how has the impact of the war continued into todays society? Not About Heroes is a play that explores the friendship between great war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon whilst weaving their poetry into the story. Here, the plays director Caroline Clegg talks about her love for the play, its inspirational themes and the importance for schools.

You have worked on this play several times now - what is it about the play that continues to appeal to you as a director?

Not About Heroes is one of the finest plays I have directed. The writing is skilled, witty, and challenging and it is a most appropriate piece for the 21st century as we examine our attitudes to peace and conflict a century on from the First World War. 

As a director I want to tell stories that can explore the implications of war on peoples lives and what better way than through a real story about two men whose work I have admired since I was a teenager?  The play has been a source of great insight and offered the privilege of working with many wonderful artists, especially through our peace event Eloquent Protest hosted by Tony Benn who will be sadly missed this year.  He encouraged us all greatly.  I recall chatting to him one day about his controversial peace mission to Saddam Hussain. He said that if he hadn’t gone he couldn’t have lived with himself for not trying.  He said “keep telling the stories, never stop trying to make a difference” . That’s what we hope to do through Not About Heroes. 

The poetry and the questions have universality and are as relevant today as they were one hundred years ago for we must never stop interrogating war.   Yesterday I saw a postcard that said: if war is the answer it must be a very stupid question.  What more can I say?  I think through the arts we can create a climate to change hearts and minds.

Much of Feelgood’s work has explored war – what is it about this theme that provides so much inspiration and scope?

That’s a tricky question; don’t get me wrong, I enjoy happier subjects too.   I don’t intentionally search out stories with this theme, but like many artists I am attracted to personal stories that are set within or against the  ‘epic’ because in making them ‘intimate’ we can learn and understand a little more about the human condition and ourselves.    It is the personal stories that help us cope with the enormity of the subject; the stories we connect with and the indomitable spirit that an individual shows in extreme circumstances which is both uplifting and universal.

It also depends how you present the piece.   I have met and worked with the most amazing artists in Zimbabwe on Romeo and Juliet – Thando and Ruvhengo and Macbeth in the UK and they showed me that by portraying struggle through exhilarating music and dance we can view the world with optimism – in the short term we may not be able to change the world but we can change ourselves and how we deal with these issues - as we did with Slave – A Question of Freedom.  Mende’s story of enslavement was born out of the civil war in the 1990’s and her struggle for freedom and continues to be a story of real triumph over adversity.  She taught me how to tell a story clearly so that we can understand the bigger picture and “if you can sing it then all the better”.  A haunting refrain will stay in someone’s mind longer than words, which is why I always use music to underscore our work.

How did you become a director?

I have always been a ‘doer’, an organiser and a dreamer.  I was brought up on a farm and from an early age had many responsibilities.  As a child I played outside and made up  ‘what if ‘stories….maybe part of me hasn’t grown up because I still like to say ‘what if ‘and then try to create that theatrically, particularly in site specific locations.

I directed my first show Our Girls in London in the 1980s and this became the first show with Feelgood in 1994.  I had no intention of starting my own company but at a reception in 1993 someone said they owned an aircraft hangar!  I knew that it would be a great place for a full blown production of Our Girls for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, complete with flying in a US WWII bomber at the start of the show.   If you are going to say ‘what if’ then do it in style!   The rest is Feelgood history. That was many years before the genre ‘site specific’ had been created.  Since then we have performed in major parks, African townships, in quarry’s, garden centres not to mention the West End and at a theatre near you.


About the same time I began teaching at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music in the opera department and began to fall under the spell of opera.  I was from a musical theatre performing background so it was a little bit of a gear change but it is a little like Shakespeare; once you put a bit of time and effort into it you fall in love with the genius of it and it becomes a passion.  Now I happily split my time between theatre, opera and musical theatre.

Can you tell us about your directing process, and its application to this play?

I employ many different methods, most of which stem from a physical theatre perspective based on Grotowksi, Laban and also Stanislavski.  I work with the actors in a collaborative way to share their ideas for the character s journey and we bring it together as a team.  Of course before we get to the rehearsal room there is a great deal of research to do on the characters.

How do you go about choosing your actors for this play?

I usually have ideas for my ‘dream cast’ and then I ask them.   I will ask actors who I have worked with before or more established actors to meet for a coffee.  We need to know if we share the same ideals; if they sound and look right and don’t mind working away from home on tour.  It is about creating a balanced team. With a cast of two it is vital that the actors really get on, as they have to have absolute stage rapport.  The subject is an emotional roller coaster so they need to be sure that they can cope with that for over three months. . 

Why have you chosen to run a poetry competition in conjunction with the play?

I have a great love of poetry and I hope that we can inspire people of all ages to write so that we can find the voices of the 21st century.   By building an explicit link between the experiences of the First World War and our experiences today we hope to build bridges of understanding on the issue of peace and conflict and create a lasting legacy for the next generation.

Like many of us a wonderful English Literature teacher at secondary school inspired me.  At the age of 13 she introduced us to Wilfred Owen and read Futility aloud. It was the first time I had heard anyone read a poem with such emotional depth - it moved both of us to tears. The line “move him into the sun, its touch awoke him once” seems like a desperate cry from a soldier who had witnessed death on a massive scale but who could express it on a personal level.    Unravelling the meaning between the lines was like discovering a myriad of multi coloured jewels; that words could be used to paint such vivid images, and inspired me to use poetry to voice events and emotions.  I feel the IWW poetry written by soldier poets is in some ways verbatim testimony to their experiences.  Their words focus our minds directly on the pity and that will always challenge us to ask questions and strive for peace and negotiation.   I feel that the poets of the IWW were the journalists who dared voice the unspeakable above the clamour of the propaganda; it had a powerful effect; which is why we are still talking about it today. 

Poetry can explore, challenge, enrage, inspire - it can speak the unspeakable but it can’t give us answers; we have to be the answer.  As Wilfred Owen said: “…all a poet can do is warn…”

Why do you think World War One poetry is still studied in schools today?

Simply because a great deal of it is excellent, and because it is has a relevance today. Sadly while instruments of war and destruction change rapidly our attitude to war and the decision to go to war is slow to change – if ever.  If you read ancient Greek poetry you see the whole range of ideas, emotions and attitudes to war debated, just as we do now.  It is certainly more powerful to listen to a poem than a politician, to see Picasso’s Guernica or read a soldiers letter home.  Perhaps poetry whilst it gives us graphic insight and immediacy also distances us.  A poem has universality and longevity – it bears witness to the horror of war and can be read and re-read.

Poetry continues to inspire us in all its horrific revelations.  Although not a poem, Sassoon’s Wilful Declaration to the Government could so easily have been written about the Iraq war; read Owen and then read Simon Armitage, read Owens last letter home to his mother and then read Cyrus Thatcher’s letter home to his mother from Afghanistan. We have to believe that change will happen - that poetry and the power of words can inspire successive generations to keep trying.

Why is this an important show for schools to come and watch?

Just as Owens poetry moved me as a 13 yr old, this play is inspirational to young people and adults. I know from our past experience that teenagers are stimulated by this play to write and engage with literature, history, performing art. It also challenges them to want to speak about conflict from a different perspective, as the play is essentially a personal story about two young men who want to be the best they can be in the direst of circumstances.

Tell us how you work with a designer to develop a play.

We first begin by reading the play together. We then gather lots of relevant images, materials and talk about how we want to use the space and any particular themes that we may want to develop. I love doing this as it challenges my own vision for the piece, throws up new ideas and stimulates ideas for lighting too. For Not About Heroes we looked at many images of war and not just IWW.   I want the play to have a contemporary resonance, as it is important to me the audiences draw parallels to the 21st century and not just come to see a period re-enactment. The set should challenge on its own, before it is populated.  We also try to make sure that we are creating something that no one else has done before.

What has been the biggest challenge so far in working on this play?

When working on a play that you have directed before the challenge is to try to do something different, unearth some new research or idea that you can explore in more depth to emphasise the meaning.  However, this year, as well as examining the play, it is vital that it sits within the international spectrum of dialogue taking place for the centenary commemorations.

 I have attended conferences for educationalists and organisations on how to approach ‘teaching’ and ‘presentation and commemoration’ of the First World War over the centenary.  Whilst I tread cautiously in adding my opinion I am confident that this play offers audiences of all ages not only a moving theatre experience but also a thought provoking and stimulating starting point from which to ask their own questions and to continue the debate on the issues of war and the journey for peace.

Col Stephen Padgett, OBE late PWO and camp commander at Catterick Garrison launched our poetry competition Whispers of War.   Catterick is the biggest garrison in Europe and it was with some trepidation but also excitement that we undertook a workshop at the school with young people whose parents are in the army and with veterans suffering from PTSD.    The workshops were humbling and enlightening.  At the launch Col Padgett said.

“…yes, war is bad, but sometimes necessary to defend what we believe in; but through getting in touch with our feelings through theatre, poetry and music we are better equipped to talk about it with clarity and to ask the tough questions…” 

I am incredibly grateful for his openness and honesty and that we are performing this play there and to a variety of audiences and not just ‘playing to the converted’.   Whilst being respectful we can also challenge perceived ideas and also those of our own.

Much has been said to criticise the teaching of Owen and Sassoon’s poetry as a definitive view of the First World War and I have had dialogue with retired and serving military personnel on the significance of their poetry and all have differing views. However there is no doubt that Owens graphic exposure of the gulf between the reality of war and the public perception of it generated in the media, is as relevant to us now as it was then.  As a director and storyteller I hope that Not About Heroes will inspire audiences to look again at the conflict and the human cost of war.  


Not About Heroes comes to the Guildhall Theatre from Tue 21 - Sat 25 Oct.