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Divination and prophecy during the First World War

Published: 19 September 2018

The Important Man, a new play from Cap-a-Pie, looks at an almost unknown part of World War I: the large increase in the number of fortune-tellers. Both servants to army generals visited fortune-tellers to try and find out what was happening and what was going to happen next. News was slow to reach the general public at home and belief was being tested while advances in science seemed as otherworldly as the supernatural.

This is a story based on real people at a time when magic had a real function in people’s lives. It asks, if the people you cared about the most were in danger what would you do? What is under your control and what isn’t? What do you grab hold of when faith is slipping away?

The play has been developed in partnership with historian Professor Owen Davies from the University of Hertfordshire and shares his research into magic, fortune-telling and the supernatural.

“Working with Cap-a-Pie has been a rewarding experience, which has given me fresh perspectives on my research into divination and prophecy during the First World War,” Owen said. “Thinking through issues of motivation, emotions, and human behaviour through creative collaboration has been at the heart of The Important Man.”

The play is performed and scripted by Brad McCormick (The Town Meeting), who is Cap-a-Pie’s Artistic Director, and directed by Laura Lindow, whose writing credits include The War of the Worlds for Northern Stage and Woven Bones (2018) for Cap-a-Pie. Among her directing credits is the hugely successful Key Change for Open Clasp.

“The role that 'faith' and 'belief' had to play in the everyday world during the Great War is just fascinating,” Lindow said, “lending a sense of reason to life and to the unfortunately inevitable death of so many. At a time when the scientific world was negotiating its own role, innovations like electricity and photography were as unfathomable and inexplicable as the world of the occult. So why wouldn't fortune tellers be viewed as reliable sources of information? As we found out more, it threw up bigger very current questions for me about where we place our faith and why.”

The play is designed by Imogen Cloët and produced by Katy Vanden for Cap-a-Pie.

The production will première at Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle, from 4 to 6 October 2018 at 7:30 and will then move to Harrogate Library on 16 October (8:00). It will also visit schools, universities and colleges where students will watch the show and then take part in a creative workshop with Cap-a-Pie and Professor Davies.

The Important Man is a University of Hertfordshire Arts (UHArts) Production in collaboration with Cap-a-Pie. It is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and Everyday Lives in War.

Peter Lathan