“The absolutists were as their name suggests, absolutely opposed to doing anything at all that could even remotely be construed as helping the war effort.”
In 1916, at the height of the First World War, Henry Asquith, Britain’s beleaguered Liberal Prime Minister, “begged leave to introduce a bill with respect to military service.” Little did he know just how strong the opposition to it would be. Although he had ensured, as a result of vigorous campaigning both inside and outside Parliament, that one of the exemptions contained in the bill would be, “on the ground of having a conscientious objection to bearing arms,” in practice it proved extremely difficult to obtain this exemption.
Arrests soon followed. C.O.s would be forcibly escorted to barracks and there ordered to put on a uniform, and do drill – which they politely refused to do. This civil disobedience would result in punishments, bread and water diets, solitary confinement, and worse. At least they couldn’t face the ultimate threat – execution – as they were not in the war-zone, and therefore not deemed to be on active service. Unless, of course the Army started sending C.O.s across the Channel to France…
Michael Mears – actor, playwright, long-distance walker – has enjoyed a rich and varied career in theatre, television, radio and film. His on stage work includes seasons with the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Peter Hall Company, portraying many classical and Shakespearean roles.
On television, Michael’s roles include Rifleman Cooper in Sharpe, two series of The Lenny Henry Show, and appearances in Parades End, The Colour of Magic, My Family, and Birds of a Feather. On film Michael is most delighted to have been the hotel barman who brings Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell together in Four Weddings And A Funeral.
This Evil Thing was published in April 2017 by 49Knights. To find out more click here.
Why WWI conscientious objectors?
As a playwright, I was looking for a subject as the First World War 100 year commemorations were approaching. There I was, a pacifist, but I didn’t appreciate what my subject matter had to be until I casually picked up and read, the way you do, a book I’d been given for Christmas – Robert Graves’ autobiography, Goodbye To All That – in the course of which he describes his experiences in WW1, including his meeting and friendship with Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, known for his superb war (anti-war?) poetry – served loyally and courageously as a Lieutenant in the trenches, before having a Damascene conversion and realizing the horror and utter futility of it all – and becoming, in effect, a conscientious objector.
Oh yes, I now thought, who were the conscientious objectors exactly? Within days I was discovering all kinds of books, articles, you name it, about the subject – an utterly fascinating, riveting and rarely told part of the history of the First War. I felt compelled to make my own dramatic contribution, inspired by the stories I read, feeling I wanted to play my part in helping give their courageous stand against war and conscription more oxygen and daylight.
This Evil Thing is a play for one actor yet there are dozens of characters represented. What was your process to ensure that each has an individual voice?
Myself and Rosamunde Hutt, my director, made sure that the smallest character, even an army sergeant who has just a couple of lines in the piece, say, had a name, a motivation and their own integrity. We ascertained what their background would be, how they might sound (through playful exploration) and similarly explored how they would move, what physical gestures/tics/mannerisms they might have. Obviously this work would be more in-depth when looking at the more substantial characters. We strenuously tried to avoid any kind of caricature – although occasionally a cartoon-like style might be briefly employed where appropriate.
You’ve enjoyed considerable success at the Fringe both with This Evil Thing and previous productions. What are the best and worst things a new company can do during August in Edinburgh?
Best things you can do – are to be thoroughly prepared as far as the work is concerned, so you can handle the madness of whirlwind get-ins and get-outs, as show follows show follows show. Be as charming and polite as possible to those you are given to work with in the venue, and your venue managers, publicity people etc. Whatever the frustrations, (and there are oh so many) try not to let these affect the way you are in public, and way you deal with people in public. And yes, unless you get that early 5-star review and then sell-out pronto, do hand out flyers and spread the word about your show on a daily basis, but as charmingly as possible – while being fully accepting of the many brush-offs and rejections of your leaflets that you will encounter. Tall order, I know.
Worst things – to get so inebriated, wrecked, spaced-out, whatever, that you can’t deliver brilliantly what you are here for in the first place. To quote some old playwright of yore – ‘The play’s the thing…’ (or the show, the stand-up act, the musical – substitute as necessary…) We all need a good moan. But try not to moan ad infintum. Edinburgh can be incredibly frustrating, but you’re there, you’re performing for better or worse in this huge arts festival, the city is beautiful and it’s an extraordinary place at Festival time, so relish being there, get out and see loads of stuff, especially the amazing stuff that comes from abroad, and let it feed your own work, your own imagination.
You’re an alumnus of the TV series Sharpe (in which Sean Bean plays the titular blood and guts Napoleonic war hero). Here you are writing a play about a different kind of heroism. Are the two types, soldiering and refusing to fight, antithetical?
My instinct is to say yes, and yet, as I highlight right at the end of This Evil Thing, there are different ways to be a hero, to be courageous. The very best soldiers are absolutely willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe in – and it is exactly the same for the conscientious objectors. They were willing to face death if necessary, to face execution, rather than betray their belief that no man, no government, should be able to force another man to kill against his will.
And many COs, while imprisoned in barracks and guard-rooms, met soldiers who though they said they didn’t agree with the COs’ beliefs, nevertheless had great respect for them and their willingness to suffer in order not to betray those beliefs.
Did you ever mention that you might be a pacifist while playing Rifleman Cooper?
Warfare in those days, the days of Napoleon and Wellington, was a very different thing to warfare just a hundred years later. You got very close to your enemy, often saw the whites of their eyes, often grappled in hand to hand combat…somehow it seemed more honest, if that makes sense – unlike warfare now where generally it’s a question of dropping bombs from a great height or distance – without those doing the bombing ever having any contact with those to whom they are bringing such damage and devastation. The early 1800s was a fascinating period to research and though I was never truly comfortable holding and firing my rifle and taking part in those imagined battles, the characters were so vivid and rich and colourful – most of them survivors from the gutter, finding a home and purpose in the army. And at the time of filming Sharpe, in the early 1990s, I wasn’t consciously calling myself a pacifist. The job of being part of Sharpe was an acting challenge to me, first and foremost – to portray a hard-bitten soldier living on his wits and the camaraderie of his fellows, even though I would never have dreamt of joining the army in real life; much as to play Macbeth, you don’t actually have to have been a murderer (though I imagine it would help a bit).
Many of the absolutist COs came from a nonconformist background. Most Quakers, Methodists, etc accepted non-combat roles (such as front line stretcher bearing). What made the absolutists different, and how were they treated by their own congregational communities after WWI?
The absolutists were as their name suggests, absolutely opposed to doing anything at all that could even remotely be construed as helping the war effort. They were utterly opposed to this war, and in most cases, all war. There were 1,300 of them, and they endured tough prison sentences, with repeated stints of solitary confinement on bread and water diets, and enduring what was a Rule Of Silence for all prisoners in prison at that time. Many developed health problems as a result of their treatment.
After the war the responses the COs encountered on release varied – but in some communities there was a feeling that they had been shirkers, had had an easy war and didn’t deserve any kind of special treatment or status now. Finding work could prove very difficult, with many ads in the papers specifying that ‘COs need not apply’ ; and the vote was denied to COs for 5 years. But there were communities, such as in Huddersfield with its radical background and history, who were far more understanding of what the COs stood for and had endured.
Bert Brocklesby, the protagonist in my play, and who had been an absolutist, was ultimately spurned by his Methodist congregation in south Yorkshire. It wasn’t long before Bert joined the Quakers, understandably.
Do you see a difference between refusing wartime service between 1914-18 and 1939-45?
An early choice of title for my play was ‘What About Hitler?’ Sort of says it all, really – in terms of this question. The most passionate pacifists, and I consider myself one, are nevertheless brought up short when confronted with the ghastly phenomenon of AH. War is an appalling way to resolve international disputes, but when someone like Hitler appears on the scene – what do you do? But there were COs in WW2, a lot more in fact than in WW1, and because of those early trailblazers and the way in which they had in fact helped to reshape public opinion to a considerable extent, COs in WW2 generally had a far more sympathetic hearing.
Although This Evil Thing is a play for one actor you’ve been directed, stage managed, designed and produced. How does a solo player successfully pick a team?
There are all kinds of elements that go into picking a team – experience (the older you get, the more people you work with and thus gain an excellent knowledge of people’s abilities or particular skills); word of mouth; getting out there and seeing (in my case) other directors’ solo work (partly how I found Ros Hutt – I saw a splendid solo piece she had directed a year earlier); chance meetings; serendipity; and of course, calling on people you’ve worked with well before – like Mark Friend my set designer, who had designed a previous solo play of mine. I came across my sound designer Mark Noble, when I was in a play sat Salisbury that he had designed sound and video for – and I thought, ‘Gosh, he’s good. And he’s very young. So maybe he won’t be too expensive – yet!’
What’s next for This Evil Thing?
A 600 seat tent, 3 Quaker school halls, the studio of Hull Truck theatre, London’s only surviving Elizabethan Church in Stoke Newington, a small wine bar in Wanstead, East London – all these with their differing shapes, sizes and acoustics, and many more, will be hosting the play this August, and through the autumn. Check out michaelmears.org for more details.
I’m also looking for possible American openings – no, not Hollywood, but the Quakers in Philadelphia perhaps…
What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading This Evil Thing?
Ideally nothing. But if you do want something on in the background…then almost certainly something by Vaughan-Williams – his ‘Pastoral Symphony’ – which captures the sense of loss and sadness connected with the First World War… or his ‘The Lark Ascending.’
Or a haunting and beautiful piece of acapella music called ‘Unmarked Graves’ by Helen Chadwick, from her album ‘AMAR’ – she recorded other beautiful acapella material for the production of This Evil Thing.