REVIEW: This Evil Thing, a play about WW1 conscientious objectors

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Michael Mears as Bertrand Russell in This Evil Thing. Photo: Mark Williamson W2/1/17/5770

This Evil Thing, Michael Mears at the Kempe Studio, 15th January

When the subject of the heroes of the First World War comes up, your thoughts naturally turn to the million British soldiers killed in action, or the two million injured — many of them horrendously maimed.

Here, in this original solo work, the play’s author and lone actor, Michael Mears, turns our attention to the men who refused to fight, and asks us to understand their heroism.

The Non-Conscription Fellowship was founded by Fenner Brockway and Clifford Allen in November 1914. After conscription was introduced in 1916, the movement’s leaders were jailed, and Bertrand Russell and Catherine Marshal stepped in as chair and secretary. This Evil Thing tells that story but also that of the conscientious objectors (COs) themselves. Around 16,000 COs refused to sign up. Many of them were forcibly enlisted and then subjected to military punishments; a number were taken to France to face execution (although this was later revoked).

At the heart of This Evil Thing is the story of Bert Brocklesbury, a 25-year-old teacher, Methodist lay preacher and absolutist (meaning he refused to serve even in a non-combat role) from Yorkshire, who lends the facts of the play personality and warmth.

In the production Michael plays around 52 characters. It opens with him stuck in a ditch 3ft by 2ft and 10ft deep as he depicts a conscientious objector confined there for days as punishment. The ditch is filled with water and he must stand on two narrow wood planks. It is a horrendous feat of endurance and a harrowing sight, but it makes a clear point: these men weren’t cowards, far from it, they were willing to suffer and even die for their moral principles.

How a lone actor with few props (the planks of wood are two small upturned drawers on which he balances) in the intimate drawing room of the Kempe Studio conjures such a visceral scenario is testament to Michael’s exemplary acting and his superbly crafted play. The actor’s sole assistant is a clever soundtrack — choral song, gunfire, judge’s decrees, Pathe-style news bulletins and the like, which lend the performance dimension and texture.

Michael switches seamlessly between his many roles: he’s a stretcher-bearer ducking fire on the front, a barking sergeant, a worried girlfriend, a troubled dad, an army officer, a philosopher, a politician, a campaigner… the effect is of a master storyteller at work as Michael weaves the compelling tale of peacemakers fighting against the tide of popular opinion and the iron-fist of the military. The story is so absorbing, however, you don’t really notice the acting process. Like most in the room, I am smitten by this revelatory tale of the conscientious objectors and their plight, as if rethinking truths we had previously taken for granted. Like the conscientious objector stuck in that dark hole, we look up and see the light.

How amazing.

This Evil Thing is on again locally at Sibford School, Sibford Ferris, on Friday, 3rd February at 3pm, and the school is extending the audience to include a limited number of free seats that are being made available to the general public. Anyone wishing to attend should contact the school’s community development officer, Ali Bromhall, on 01295 781216 or e-mail her at abromhall@sibfordschool.co.uk