Things to do in a blackout

March 25, 2020

March has been a month of big, dramatic, unexpected changes for this project.

The early part of the month involved collating and organising the research gathered over the previous months, and for my own part, a single workshop at Coombe Boys school. This group was the first I’d been involved in at the end of the school day. With early drafts of parts of the script for the performance now written, the students were divided into two groups – one dramatising the script’s adaptation of Wally Thompson and his gang’s escape, and the other, with me, exploring the character of Winston Churchill.

The script contained an extract from the speech that Churchill made upon becoming Prime Minister, and the aim of this exercise was to explore how Churchill could be portrayed in the play, and perhaps find a boy capable of embodying Churchill and performing this speech. Having been researching Churchill as part of getting further context for the project, I was ideally placed to do this.

One of the things I particularly noticed about Churchill, however, particularly when listening to recordings of his speeches, and watching the even rarer video recording, was something I’d forgotten about from my days studying him at school – that as a speaker, he was not in fact particularly charismatic and compelling. Although he was capable of particularly rousing and soaring rhetoric, if you listen to any speech of his, the delivery seems mismatched. Churchill’s intonation is sometimes counterintuitive – in terms of pitch, he often goes down rather than up at the end of a sentence, giving the impression of boredom or deflation. This seems quite at odds with the portrayal of him many of us are used to in television and film – no doubt because from a dramatic point of view, if the narrative at all refers around Churchill or those adjacent to him, having an actor do an entirely true-to-life impersonation would highlight this dissonance. Instead, I suspect, most actors probably do some study of Churchill’s voice, his mannerisms, his body language and history, and then deliver an approximation, with them adding a degree of flavour to the delivery of the already fiery rhetoric.

To do this, I initially tried to play them the section of the speech quoted in the script, and then experimented with telling each of the four students to just perform it with the same energy, and then with progressively more energy. However, it still felt as if even the performance intended to be the more inspiring rallying cry lacked the energy needed. I then asked them to experiment with performing the speech as if drunk, with some as only slightly inebriated, and others barely able to stand. This was based on my existing knowledge as Churchill as someone who liked a drink – and it occurred to me that his tone of voice could subtly reflect this.

Next, I asked the students to imagine delivering the speech not as Churchill himself – a figure of less interest and an uneasy point of reference, but for political figures they could more easily draw upon – I asked one to deliver the speech doing an impression of Boris Johnson, one of Donald Trump, and one as Martin Luther King – the last one in particular as King had come up in conversation with them as an inspiring speaker. This greatly improved their performances – particularly for the boy performing the speech as Johnson. In attempting to capture a little of the essence of Johnson, the student performed with more bombast and energy, yet still was sufficiently restrained to convey a degree of statesmanship that one might associate with Churchill. The student leaned over a chair to use as a mock lectern, and at the end of the session, along with the other students, delivered his interpretation of the speech. The Johnson version seemed to capture the energy needed, and whilst another boy was a very effective mimic of Donald Trump, and it was interesting and amusing to watch as an exercise, it became clear that our ideal young person to perform as Churchill in the final production was the boy using Boris Johnson as a point of reference.

However, events in the month later took over. The aforementioned workshop took place against a backdrop of growing fears about the outbreak of the Coronavirus. In the days leading up to it, we had all already seen the news and social media reports of people stockpiling toilet paper and hand sanitiser, in anticipation of the virus and potential prolonged isolation. Whispers of potential school closures and mass gatherings had already begun, with the virus spreading across Europe, and the beginnings of contingency plans for Things To Do In A Blackout were being drawn up – understandably, potential school closures would impact any project that involve school students, as would any bans or official advice against mass gatherings.

In the days after the session, following government advice and information about the virus’s spread, Bounce Theatre took the executive decision to postpone the initially planned performance for May 2020 until the autumn. Workshops with young people will still be carrying on in some form, and practitioners are visually recording as much to do with the project as possible, so that whether or not they are in the final production, young people involved up to now will still have played a decisive role in devising Things To Do In A Blackout for later in the year.

When I started researching for this project, I highlighted some of the potential comparisons between the Second World War and the modern day, particularly when it came to the rise in crime. I talked about similar circumstances in falling numbers of police and resources, and how that may have had a particular effect on crime. I spoke of some who will have committed crime because of the visible opportunity, such as gangsters like Billy Hill, and how some did so because of desperation, trying to feed and provide for their family.

What I doubt anyone could have predicted at that time was that the coronavirus pandemic would create the need for rationing of goods. In the expectation of forced self-isolation, then as aforementioned, people began stockpiling loo roll, and due to fears about the virus, people panic-bought hand sanitiser. This made headline news, so much so that it even became a part of the session in the workshop we described – at one point we asked the students to improvise a scene in a supermarket of people vlogging and panic-buying.

One might question what this has to do with the rise in crime in WWII or the modern day – my workshop on Churchill was all about lending historical context to the rest of the piece, while the other half of the workshop was devising a scene featuring Wally Thompson and his gang. The stockpiling and panic-buying that has taken place so far is clearly not a crime. But the images I am sure we’ve all seen posted on social media of the consequences – of elderly people finding empty shelves when they get to do their own shopping – are nothing short of criminal. Indeed, many supermarkets have introduced independent rationing of goods, albeit nothing as extreme as the war, to try to prevent this.

One of the things that became particularly prevalent with actual crime in the Second World War was new legislation making criminals of ordinary folk, who were ignorant of the new legislation, or charged for reasons that in normal times may seem excessive. Whilst panic-buying has yet to be criminalised and rationing yet to be nationally imposed, perhaps what problems that have emerged since the outbreak of the crisis could be due to public ignorance, about the virus, about social isolation or similar. In times of crisis it is more important than ever that the government clearly communicates what it wants citizens to do.

But just as much, it’s important we as communities pull together, just as many did in the Second World War and thereafter. The quarantine and social distancing of many people has clear similarities with the Blackout in WWII, and further comparisons will no doubt crop up in the coming weeks and months, especially as potential restrictions on our movement become more stringent. But while this project won’t shy away from highlighting the multi-faceted story of crime in WWII, and will continue to shine a light on this often neglected side of the war, we hope that, when further comparisons between the war and today are made, that their are similar stories of community spirit, friendship, and solidarity.

That is the story we hope will be told, of the Things We Did – In A (Social) ‘Blackout’…

Henry Mendoza

< All posts