We Will Not Fight – review

Review of We Will Not Fight performed by the UnderConstruction theatre company

Oxford, 19th May 2016

Singing "Guide me, oh, they great Redeemer". Phot: Stu Allsopp
Singing “Guide me o thou great Redeemer”. Photo: Stu Allsopp

A disused courtroom in central Oxford reverted to its former role in May as Under Construction Theatre re-enacted the court-martial of John “Bert” Brocklesby, one of the pacifists to be sentenced to death in World War One. Bert was one of 35 British pacifists condemned to be shot by firing squad in the spring of 1916. The sentence was commuted to ten years in prison.

Remarkably, director Lizzy McBain and her four actors had rehearsed and put together the play in only two days. The play was adapted from an earlier script produced by the Amnesty International group in Canterbury.

The play did a good job of conveying the complexity of first world war politics, as well as the personal struggles of an individual conscientious objector, in less than an hour. The trial was only a part of the play. We saw Bert’s mother frantically seeking advice about her son’s stubborn stance, a discussion between leading peace activists about the popular hostility to them, and the tribunal hearing at which Bert sought total exemption from the army as a conscientious objector – and, like most, was denied. A scene based on a debate in the House of Lords provided political context for those who were unfamiliar with the subject. This was followed by some painful viewing as we saw Bert bullied and beaten after being forced into the army and refusing to obey orders. Finally, the courtroom setting came to life as Bert was court-martialled, sentenced – and saved.

Adaptations were necessary to pack so much into such a short time and small space. There were some variations made to the details of Bert’s life and other facts. However, it was only the details that were changed, not the truth that they represented. Thus, an extract from Bert’s memoirs, describing the filthy conditions on his first night in detention, was turned into a letter to his mother. While this changed the format, the words were Bert’s own: “The stench of humanity and drunks was nothing to the crowning stench of a filthy latrine in the corner, of which the drain was choked and urine was seeping across the guardroom floor… I did not feel happy, nor that I was suffering in a noble cause.”

Questions and discussion after the play revealed that it had made a powerful impact on a number of viewers with little or no knowledge of resistance to World War One, a much overlooked aspect of the war’s history. I was privileged to be on the panel for the post-show discussion. Questioners were interested in all sorts of things: How many people had been conscientious objectors? What were they aiming for? How many died? And, most importantly, what relevance do they have today?

In the UK today, we are no longer directly conscripted to fight. Modern warfare needs money and technology, not endless numbers of people to fill trenches. But our minds are still enlisted in the ideology of militarism that permeates British society. Performances such as this one are a reminder of why conscientious objection – in so many senses – is vital.

Symon Hill is a member of FoR and a pacifist author, journalist and tutor. Symon has recently become coordinator of the Peace Pledge Union.

The play was part of a series of events marking 100 years since conscientious objection to conscription in Britain during WWI. They are organised by Commemorating the Peacemakers, a group of people representing FoR, Oxford Quakers and Movement for the Abolition of War.

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