flames

Furious Folly

Birmingham Hippodrome

Sutton Park

*****

STAR shells heralded the start as battle as Mark Anderson’s huge art installation gave just a glimpse of what war on the Somme must have been like.

Not that 40 minutes on a glorious summer evening in the midst of pyrotechnics and effects can give any real concept of life on the Western Front, just as playing football in the park with your kids is hardly the same as the Champions League final.

On the Somme 100 years ago, sensible shoes wblazing treeould have been replaced with ill-fitting boots, lice a way of life, and the shells, bullets and explosions – and the gas - were real. Death was a constant companion.

The only danger in Sutton Park was the constant attack by midges or a stumble in the dark returning to the comfort of your car.

But now and again, just for a moment, the senses were assaulted by just a bit of what a Tommy Atkins or a Fritz must have faced.

It started with the audience milling about before being ushered onto the battlefield. No instructions, no enlightenment, just confusion.

A burning tree - most trees along the trenches of the Western Front were reduced to stumps and splinters by constant shelling and fighting

After an age of standing around, follow the shuffling crowd, collect a model soldier from a bucket and follow the unfriendly, barked order, brown soldiers left, green soldier right.

More milling then with no explanation or even a request, shuffle off to a stockade to be met with drums and bugles and repeated messages about the war being over soon. The jingoism of conflict.

Then the first request from the guards, sinister and anonymous in their all-enveloping rain capes – enter the stockade with its four corner turrets of rough timber and loose walls - greens from one side, browns from the other.

With no explanations, no commentary, no idea what was happening the confused crowd, like sheep, complied, shuffling into the centre only for all hell to break loose.

We have grown up in a world where fireworks are pretty, glorious displays, more and more spectacular, a visual expression of celebration set to stirring music eliciting ooohs and aaahs.

Here the pyrotechnics were aggressive, unfriendly, almost an enemy – more weapon than wonder- an attack on the senses.

From the star shells which illuminated the no man’s land where we stood, lifting the security of darkness, to the whizzbangs, explosions, and shellshocks, cracks that could be rifles, staccato bursts that could be machine guns.

The noise was deafening and unrelenting, and at times it was uncomfortable.

Amid pauses we had a shell shocked soldier with a garbled message about soldiers who died of injuries, a woman singing a sweet song with less sweet words, then back to the shelling and then gas. Thick, clouds of swirling gas that blotted out everything.

This was for dramatic effect of course, harmless theatrical smoke that did not even irritate or make breathing difficult, not the phosgene or mustard gas of the trenches, yet it still engendered disquiet and even fear amid the assembled ersatz cannon fodder; the horror and terror of gas attacks somehow passed down through the generations.

The production, commissioned by 14-18 Now and produced in association with Birmingham Hippodrome, is a spectacular, effective piece of performance art, drawing in an audience to an alien world, the battle ending with a tree in the centre of no man’s land bursting into flame.

What at first appeared to be a lack of organisation, a lack of direction, dumping people in a field, not letting anyone know what was going on, just leaving them to it, herding them from place to place, with just one order – green right, brown left – was in fact, well organised and planned chaos, cleverly echoing the lions led by donkeys feelings of those in the trenches.

Once in no man’s land Anderson’s creation became an assault on the senses, relentless, the crowd trapped in the middle of two warring sides, mirrors of each other. The end coming not with any great finale, or crescendo, just silence, and a line of flares lit to guide the crowds back to their cars.

An anti-war message in contemporary terms in the closing stages was perhaps lost, linking the present with a battle 100 years ago seemed an unnecessary step, few if any of those in no man’s land would advocate or believe in the merits of war, it was a statement of the obvious that perhaps detracted from the real message, the Furious Folly, that had gone before.

Perhaps its place though was not set in today but in Zurich, and the Dada movement, founded in 1916, the same year as the Battle of the Somme, a movement that was the inspiration for Anderson’s large scale piece. It was an anti-war, anti-establishment movement of artists and intellectuals which spread like wildfire. Its message was simple. Whatever the question was, war was not the answer.

But it was more than an anti-war coalition, the movement wanted to change art, literature, poetry; out of it grew movements such as surrealism, pop art, conceptual art, and coming full circle, performance art and Furious Folly – the title, incidentally, comes from a quote from German-French artist Hans Arp, one of the founders of Dadaism. “Save mankind from the Furious Folly of these times.” To 09-07-16

Roger Clarke

08-07-16

 

SUTTON Park has its own links with World War I. More than 50,000 troops were trained there during World War I and it also served as a hospital for recovering Australian and New Zealander troops. 

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