FringeReview UK 2017
Newhaven Fort, East Sussex, is the last of a long series of defences built on the cliffs overlooking Seaford Bay, the ramparts and extensive tunnel network holding 150 years of history.
This spring, during the centenary of the First World War, composer Verity Standen will create a new immersive, choral experience at Newhaven Fort, a site of historic significance in the stories of conscientious objection. The performance will be devised with and performed by local male singers of all ages.
During the First World War, the Fort became a part of larger defences, linking with the nearby town of Seaford – the site of a work camp that now lies buried underneath the town. The North Camp at Seaford housed a number of conscientious objectors, firstly before their deportation to Northern France, and subsequently for those who refused to fight and were put to work on the road improvements between Seaford and Newhaven.
Refrain is a choral work, which has been performed at various interesting locations around the UK.
As we enter, we are informed that the work was inspired by the suffering of conscientious objectors during the two world wars. We are told that we should remain silent throughout the performance (a sensible and reasonable request), and that we should feel free to wander and just “follow the singing”.
I am excited! I’ve never been to Newhaven Fort before. It looks interesting, and the initial song beckoning us in is striking and enticing.
We walk out, obediently following the singing, and find various semi-hidden nooks, rooms and cave-like hidey-holes.
The singers are all men, which (to someone not well versed in choral performance) sometimes evoked sea shanties and cotton fields. This was welcome imagery, but contrasted sharply with what we were informed was the theme of the piece.
The songs are nearly all wordless, which seems to fit the echoing acoustics. We are encouraged to squeeze into some pretty tiny spaces with the (very many) singers.
Sometimes, the songs wash over you in waves, echoing around the small brick and stone spaces, and sometimes they call from somewhere further away.
There are some truly magical moments. A huge, full harvest moon rises next to the white cliffs over the sea as a cohort of singers serenade us from a gun emplacement. In a tiny magazine chamber the singing resonates around and through us, and many of us close our eyes and are temporarily lost in the sound.
I do have a few criticisms: I would have liked to be a bit freer in where I could wander. In fact there were plain-clothes staff members all over the place to corral you to where you needed to be. I found this necessary measure broke the (metaphorical) fourth wall somewhat.
It was also a bit strange that the performance was staged at the gloaming dusk. It would have been astonishing to do this in the dark, perhaps with strings of fairy lights to follow.
And finally, I did find myself wishing that the lady at the beginning hadn’t told us the inspiration for the piece. During moments of sublime beauty I would catch myself wondering “What can this possibly have to do with conscientious objectors?”. I would tell myself to switch off my more pedantic faculties and just enjoy it, but I couldn’t help feel that I was missing out on some layer of meaning. For me, it would have been preferable to have no framing device, and simply enjoy it for what it was.
And what it was for me was a performance speckled with moments of transcendent beauty, interspersed with slightly awkward transitions. Still, I would certainly see it again in another venue, and would also comfortably recommend anyone else to as well.