Newhaven Fort’s new musical role in the story of conscientious objectors
A choral performance that explores the experiences of conscientious objectors during the First World War is being performed at Newhaven Fort in East Sussex on 9-11 June.
Composer and artist Verity Standen worked with English Heritage to create Refrain for sites in the UK where conscientious objectors (COs) were imprisoned or set to work.
The production, which is co-produced by Situations and the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts at the University of Sussex, involves an ensemble of four professional singers and 15 local volunteers performing in the former military defence overlooking the sea.
The location is a pertinent one. The ‘conchies’ who made a stand against the violence and bloodshed of war were put to work on road improvements between Seaford and Newhaven. Those who disobeyed orders were court-martialled at Newhaven Fort before deportation to France.
While commemorations of the First World War have largely focussed on the conflict on the French battlefields, Refrain reflects the experiences of the 16,000 men prepared to face the harsh consequences of their pacifism.
Verity Standen says: “While I was keen to learn about the histories, I knew that I wanted the heart of the piece to remain in the here-and-now – made with, and performed by, local people.
“When adapting the music for Newhaven, I heard the stories of the many COs who lived at the nearby Road Board Camp whilst repairing the road between Newhaven and Seaford.
“Newhaven became one of the major supply ports to the Western Front and many of the 900 COs here were sent to work at the docks, handling food supplies. Following a workers’ strike, they were ordered to handle munitions. Those who refused to comply were threatened with execution for mutiny, sent to a camp at Seaford and court martialled at Newhaven Fort.”
In creating Refrain, which has also been performed at Richmond Castle in Yorkshire and St Helen’s in Merseyside, Verity chose locations with natural acoustics so that the audience’s relationship to the sound can be live and direct rather than amplified.
“I hope that the music can function as a guide through the experience - gently leading people on an exploration of the site, and celebrating the voices of the local singers who are the core of the piece.
“Refrain is inspired by men who took a stance, but the piece itself doesn’t take a stance on the history. I have offered my music to our local performers to mould and make their own; now the final piece of the jigsaw is for them to offer it to audiences. I hope that together we have captured something of the emotional register of these complex histories.”
Laura McDermott, Creative Director of the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, points out that it’s a project that Lord Attenborough would have embraced. “It chimes with the values we use to guide our public programme; human rights, social justice, creative education and access to the arts for all.
“These values are inspired by Lord Attenborough, after whom our centre is named, and who was a great champion of the arts as a means to advocate human dignity and self-respect.
“It’s thrilling for us to collaborate with Situations, one of the UK’s most visionary artistic producers, for our first off-site project and with Verity Standen.”
Seaford resident and local choir member Roger Gardner is among those who have volunteered to take part in Refrain.
He says: “The local connection to the issue of conscientious objectors opened my eyes to an element of local history I was not aware of.
“I must admit when I arrived for the first meeting, in advance of the rehearsal, I was not really sure I did want to take part. By the end of the induction session, Verity and her team had generated such enthusiasm in the group my worry became ‘would I be selected?’ “
He adds: “I have never considered myself a singer, but after joining my local Newhaven-based Haven Harmonies choir seven years ago in a quest for retirement activities, I began to realise that even with a very average voice it was possible to contribute, in a small way, to entertaining sounds which audiences can enjoy.
“The experience during the first day of rehearsals for Refrain took that understanding to another level. Singing alongside the professional voices of the team confirmed for me what an inspiring sound a random group of voices can make.”
- Refrain is being performed at Newhaven Fort, Fort Road, Newhaven, BN9 9DS on Friday 9 June, 7.30pm and 8.45pm, Saturday 10 June 2017 10am, 11.30am and 1.30pm, and Sunday 11 June at 11am and 12.30pm. Family tickets and concessions are available from £8.
- For more information and to book tickets, visit refrain.online or call 01273 678 822