Legends of the fort return to life

TWO young actor/writer/directors from East Anglia are launching their new heritage theatre company with a dramatic new show set inside Landguard Fort.

Andrew Clarke

TWO young actor/writer/directors from East Anglia are launching their new heritage theatre company with a dramatic new show set inside Landguard Fort.

As Arts Editor Andrew Clarke found out, the Felixstowe fortress supplies not only the location but the substance of the drama as well.

Felixstowe's Landguard Fort has seen many dramatic moments during its long and illustrious history. Now a new theatre company, specialising in site-specific historical dramas, has taken over the fort for July - staging a new production Where Soldiers Sleep - compiled from stories of fort life from over the centuries.

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Originally built in 1543 by Henry VIII and then updated in 1628, Landguard Fort gained fame as the scene of the last foreign assault on British soil when the Royal Marines, in their first land battle, successfully fought off the Dutch invasion.

More than 1500 Dutch musketeers, pikemen and grenadiers at Cottage Point (now Cobbold's Point) and attacked the fort from the landward side. The fort's troop of Marines, commanded by Captain Nathaniel Darell, repulsed the Dutch assault which assured the future of the fort.

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The current fort was built in the 18th century, and modified in the 19th century and substantially updated again, with additional outside batteries during the 20th century.

The Heritage Arts Company is the brainchild of two local actors David Wright and Tim Wilson, who wanted to create a theatre company that connected to the area in which they were performing and yet offered audiences an entirely new experience.

The pair have known each other for four years and have developed a very good working relationship over the years. David laughs when he explains that several friends and colleagues refer to their working relationship as more akin to a mother/father dynamic rather than best pals working alongside one another.

Tim said that the pair had been part of two other site specific theatre companies and because the productions had been successful enough to finance other people's work, they thought the time had come to strike out on their own.

Where Soldiers Sleep is the first venture by their Heritage Arts Company and they have been encamped at Landguard Fort since the second week in June soaking up the atmosphere and writing a script which uses the locations where the real events took place.

They have also employed local actors who have a feel for the area and knowledge of the history which they are bringing to life.

David said they are a theatre company telling stories rather than a historical re-enactment society. They also use multi-media techniques in order to set the mood as well as to enhance the drama.

“We are not a historical theatre group. At least we do not attempt to give a realistic account of events, instead we are concerned with folklore, myth and legend. We believe strongly in excavating the cultures that are so often left to fade, but we believe in doing this using all of the resources we have at our fingertips now. Projections, film, visual art, pyrotechnics, soundscapes, whatever we can lay our hands on we will use to achieve the desired effect.”

Tim and David first set off on their highly individual road while still at university with a production of The Tempest at King's College, London .

David said: "Even at that early stage we found ways to break theatre down and using the space between the audience. We have always been very concerned with the setting. The set is always very important to us and we were gratified when we were told it was the most successful student production at Kings College ever. Hardly any of them ever made any money and we made a few thousand pounds."

On the back of their success, Tim and David formed their first production companies doing one off, small-scale shows. They were described by Tim as: "Plays that shouldn't be performed but sometimes have to be... things like TS Elliot's Murder In The Cathedral - they don't really work on stage but they are great literature.

“Again, they were site specific, so we did Murder In The Cathedral in the 18th century chapel, we did a production of One For The Road in an old surgical theatre within the College and as David has a background in design and advertising we were doing publicity for other people's shows.''

The pair have taken three shows to Edinburgh including a production of Jim Cartwright's Road as well as financing MySpace: The Musical which was at last year's Pulse Festival at the New Wolsey before playing at the Edinburgh Fringe. They staged a production of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for The Seckford Theatre Company in Woodbridge.

But, the highlight of their fledgling career was staging Twelfth Night as a fund-raiser for the Norwich Theatre Royal last summer.

David said that the entire episode still seemed a little unreal. “It was an amazing experience. It was at Houghton Hall, just outside Norwich. It had an astonishing cast - Stephen Fry, Harriet Walter, Desmond Barrett, Mel Smith - and we were lucky enough to play some of the servants in the household.

“Stephen Fry turned up two days before we were due to open and he knew his lines. We stood there while the director Peter Wilson said to him: 'Your entrances are here and here. You come in on this line and if you can be over here when you say this line...' Stephen took it all in and said: 'Yes, yes, yes, fine, fine, fine' in that manner of his and we did it once more; then we were on - and he was marvellous. I don't know how he remembered it all but it stuck in there.”

He said that this was Stephen's first play since Simon Gray's Cell Mates where he absconded to Europe after he suffered from a severe bout of stage fright. Tim said: “He told Peter (the director): 'Don't worry. I won't be going to Belgium.”

The pair said their year with Punchdrunk Theatre Company, performing in Masque of the Red Death and Faust, had given them the confidence to strike out on their own.

“When you come back from London, you come back home, you see the local communities changing, they are now so different from what they were. Half of the houses are second homes, people being pushed out by the prices and what it means for these stories, which are true, is that many people have no understanding of their local area, the history which has shaped the local landscape - the allegories and myths. We have lost the means for these stories to be past on by word of mouth, so unless they are rescued as a piece of performance or as a theatrical experience then they are in danger of being lost. So if the Heritage Arts Company can keep these stories alive a little while longer, it will help keep communities alive.”

Tim said that the structure of the evening is in stark contrast to conventional theatre. Beginning an hour before sunset, the performance strings three separate stories together to form one coherent narrative.

“Rather than visiting a heritage site like Landguard to see the bare walls and empty rooms, or to watch a demonstration of long-discarded rituals, this project is exclusively based on the stories that belong to Landguard. They are brought back to life by twisting together the magic, the theatrical and the symbolic. Focusing on three or four of the central Landguard ghost-myths, the project re-connects the stories to the fort and to the people who come and see it.

“The evening is very much about the human element in each story, beginning with the oldest story - that of the Witch-Finder General and the condemned old priest, John Lowes. This will be located within a small area of the fort. Stylistically, the performance sways between dialogue-based narratives and physical tricks and traps, such as light shows, acrobatics, or simply baffling stunts. This blend of styles is supported by constant music and noise, making it a total experience and very convincing for audiences.

“We will have live executions, a cremation, a soldier bleeding to death in a bath tub whilst writing a love letter to his wife in Boston. Whilst historic figures such as Phillipe Thicknesse will be accounted for, they will not be the focus of the piece. A chapel will be turned into a drinking house and brothel, just as it was in the 1700's, a Portuguese woman will throw herself off the battlements in search of a lost handkerchief and a local priest will be hung and burnt for summoning an imp to sink a ship at sea.”

David and Tim said that during the five years they plan to make The Heritage Arts Company one of the nation's leading providers of site specific theatre. They said that their aim was to travel the country finding historic locations with a story to tell and then bringing those stories to the attention of the public.

“At these sites we will capture the essence of the location and tales, then, with the help of local actors and artists we will produce a show that reignites interest in these places. It is our goal to celebrate forgotten corners, to bring to the attention of local communities the treasures they have lying on their doorstep.

“Throughout the evening audiences are imperceptibly shepherded around the site by a team of ushers, meaning that at any one time, the action is limited to a certain area, highlighting the way in which the fort has played host to so much history and action.

“After the opening tale the audience will be invited to move along through time and place to the next site-specific tale, which is the tragic tale of the Lace Handkerchief. Onwards again, the audience find themselves suddenly transported forward again, perhaps to the story of the last marine, found in a different part of the fort altogether. By this time, the clear resonances and repetitions of time are colouring the reality of the last story - that of the drowned soldier in the bath.”

The three stories they are using - one comes from the 1600s, one 1700s and one from the 1940s - are being woven into one overall narrative and being set during the Second World War. The timing may be different but the stories and the drama is true.

Tim said that the success of theatre groups such as Punchdrunk in London proved that there is a real appetite for theatre in this format. “Where we differ, from Punchdrunk, who put on established plays like Faust, is that we intend to make our pieces absolutely site specific. We will do pre-written plays, but take half stories, write them, shape them, fill them out and give them back to the communities that spawned them.”

He said that they chose Landguard Fort because of its long history, atmospheric setting and because they were local they realised its potential as a setting for a play.

But they only discovered this after they had abandoned plans to do something similar at Orford Castle. “Initially we talked to Orford Castle because they have the great Wild Man of Orford story but it was a much older building and we had to be much more careful about what we did and there was less we could do with the space.”

Landguard came suddenly into the picture as an ideal location when David, who lives in Woodbridge, came to the fort to attend the private view of an art exhibition and met up with Landguard's curator David Morgan.

He said: “I met David (Morgan) who was full of the most amazing stories about things that had happened here over the years and I just knew that this was exactly the location that we were looking for. He was very enthusiastic about staging a summer theatre project here and he has just given us such freedom to just get on and do stuff. He's given us the run of the place and made us feel very welcome as we have developed the show.”

The pair, almost as an after-thought, said that the evening will continue even after the performance ends as they will be hosting a 1940s bar with music from the period. “This serves many functions: it is a forum for discussion about the performance; it will showcase local talents and bring together a young crowd in a place where they might not usually congregate.”

Where Soldiers Sleep runs from July 9-26. The show starts at 8.30pm and will last two hours. It contains cinematics, dance, fire, smoke, and some scenes are not recommended for under 14's. The show requires good mobility, and warm clothes - part of it is outside. Tickets can be booked from the New Wolsey Theatre, Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal box offices or at a Tourist Information Centre in Woodbridge, Felixstowe, and Aldeburgh. Ticket prices £15, concessions £10.

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