FringeReview UK 2016
I don’t know how big the room was where they were keeping Clifford Allen prisoner, but it was certainly able to contain an elephant.
The Elephant in the Room, filling the space but never directly stated, as is always the case with these Elephants, is the passionate love that Catherine Marshall has for Allen. She loves him, cherishes him, wants to protect him – but they are both highly principled political activists who are fighting against the inhumanity of the military machine of a country at war.
It’s a feature of Sara Clifford’s writing that she manages to create an intensely human perspective on political and social issues. What could so easily become a history lecture is turned into something vividly personal. In her 2015 production ‘Home Fires’, at Newhaven Fort, it was the strikes by First World War military trainees against appalling living conditions and discipline, and the lack of comprehension of the realities of the War by much of the British population. These were brought to life for us very believably, as we watched the developing attraction between young Welsh soldier Bryn Thomas, and Grace Crismas, a telegraph messenger at Newhaven.
The setting is Newhaven again with ‘The Tribunal’. This time the characters are real people, for it’s where Clifford Allen was incarcerated in The Fort in 1916, awaiting a court martial, for his activities as leader of the No-Conscription Fellowship. Nicola Blackwell’s set was minimal, producing Allen’s cell from just a couple of dark green tarpaulins suspended from wooden stands as a backdrop, and a pair of hard wooden chairs. As we entered, the man himself was sitting hunched on one of the chairs.
Leonard Sillevis is a tall, rather thin actor, and he gave us a Clifford Allen with unkempt lanky hair and a face obviously not shaved for several days. Rough trousers, and a dirty shirt without collar or tie. He was coughing, shivering and rocking back and forth with a grey army blanket draped round his shoulders to try to keep warm. It’s December, and The Fort is bitterly cold. Allen has TB, he’s not getting much food, and worst of all he’s in solitary confinement and his guard is not allowed to talk to him. He’s desperate for his visitor – keeps asking if she’s arrived yet.
And then suddenly there she was; Catherine Marshall, tall and upright in a radiant salmon coloured skirt and jacket, crisp white blouse and with her dark hair tied severely back in a tight bun, sweeping into the cell like something from another world. Anna Darvas gave Marshall a strong, authoritative voice, rather patrician. Her father had been a teacher at Harrow School, after all, and she herself was a leading campaigner for the Suffragette movement. This woman is not afraid of authority: looking quickly round the cell she tells the guard that – “This is NOT satisfactory. He’s a political prisoner, not a common criminal. The difference must be understood”.
She’s horrified by Clifford Allen’s physical condition, starts to insist that Allen gets seen by a doctor. But he’s not having it – “I won’t have it said that I ducked out on medical grounds. I won’t!”. Right from the beginning, the writer sets up the basic dilemmas of the Pacifist movement – How much can the State demand from its citizens? How far ought you to go in opposing a brutal military machine? Should more sacrifices be asked of the leaders of a movement than of its members?
We never leave Allen’s cell, but over the course of Catherine Marshall’s visit – less than forty minutes – Sara Clifford manages to impart a huge amount of information about the Conscientious Objector movement and the people involved with it. Marshall brings news of the strikes by Objectors at Newhaven docks, and their refusal to load munitions onto ships bound for the Western Front. She tells, too, of their brutal treatment by regular troops. The pair discuss the pressures, psychological as well as physical, that are employed by the military authorities to force men to fight and kill.
We learn about the other leaders of the Conscientious Objector Fellowship – Bertrand Russell and Fenner Brockway – and their less than full-hearted support for Clifford Allen. There are references to the Bloomsbury group, public intellectuals and pacifists themselves, secure in their Charleston farmhouse, writing and painting. Only a few miles away from Newhaven, but seemingly too busy to visit and support Allen.
Not just politics – Sara Clifford gives us an insight on the class system too. A hungry Allen fantasises about food, holding dinner parties in his head, delicious dishes washed down – “with a good Burgundy”. Marshall reminds him gently that it was she who had introduced him to fine wine – although very bright (he got a place at Cambridge) he’s just a working-class boy from the Welsh valleys. People of his class don’t drink wine, while Catherine Marshall’s father, remember, taught mathematics at a leading Public School – enough said.
Which brings us to the Elephant. Catherine Marshall is an activist, but she’s also a realist. She can see that there are limits to anyone’s capacity to fight – but Clifford Allen wants to take his fight further. He’s already desperately ill, and suffering the traumas of solitary confinement, but he wants to pressure the authorities further by embarking on a hunger strike. The writer gives us an insight into that dreadful act by having Marshall describe the pain and humiliation she’d seen suffered by the Suffragettes on their hunger strikes, force-fed by tubes thrust into their stomachs through the nose.
The woman Catherine wants to protect the man she obviously loves desperately. She’s afraid that this form of protest will kill him, but Allen can only relate to the political activist Catherine. As he says – “My body is weak, which I curse. But with so many dying, who am I to prioritise myself above the others?”. And maybe he’s right – thousands of men, most of them there against their will, are being killed every month in France. If you believe strongly enough that killing is wrong, how can you hold back from your own ultimate sacrifice?
And yet – there’s something rather obsessive about Clifford Allen. Perhaps as a man who has transcended the bounds of his class, and as a leader of an important political movement, he sees himself as something extraordinary, almost superhuman. At one point he seems to weaken in his resolve to risk his death, but catches himself with the thought – “Even Jesus was tempted…”. Clifford Allen sees himself as a martyr – and it’s very hard having a relationship with a martyr. By the end of the visit Catherine has given up on intimacy and retreated into her political shell, addressing him as ‘Comrade’.
These are real people – the writer has given us a dramatised episode in the relationship of two people who are actual historical figures. I Googled them, and discovered that after the war, the couple embarked on a ‘trial marriage’ – presumably living together. It didn’t work, and Marshall was devastated by the ending of the relationship. Having seen Sara Clifford’s play, it doesn’t seem too surprising.
‘The Tribunal’ skilfully combines the domestic political situation of the First World War with the (timeless) moral dilemmas of following one’s pacifist conscience. Such a lot of historical facts, so many questions, all paraded before us in front of a tarpaulin in Seaford Library. Yet the intensity of Sara Clifford’s writing, and the talents of her actors, mean that my memory, as I write this, is of actually being in that cell in Newhaven Fort.