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We Got Mittens Too!

Kay Easson
European Players Company
Literary and Philosophical Society Library, Newcastle upon Tyne
(2008)

Production graphic

The company producing and performing this remarkable piece of promenade theatre may officially be the European Players Company, but to those who saw their previous work at the Lit and Phil they are generally referred to by its title, The Novocastrian Philosophers’ Club. And there is something appealingly clubbish even in the way they approach so massive a topic as World War I. For a start, this is site-specific, building-based theatre – and the building isn’t a theatre. First you have to know where the august rooms of the Lit and Phil and the con-joined Mining Institute are, and it helps if you do read the small print and realise that as an audience you’ll be tramping through them (and up and down some stairs constructed at a time when Health and Safety still allowed for a pioneering spirit and assumed you were wearing sensible shoes).

People who know the Lit and Phil tend to love it, not just as a library but as a landmark, a venue for classes and readings, a gentle reassurance of civilised values in an urban tradition. These enthusiasts are, I suspect, the main audience for the show, which thus functions as a reinforcement of all that the institute embodies. The building isn’t just a site, it’s the main player – and it has already created its own overture with a season of talks discussing different aspects of WWI, including its social and cultural impact viewed in a north-eastern context.

If the Library is the play, then it’s fitting that the playwright is the Librarian. Kay Easson’s researches into the period have provided the framework of words on which the work of a wide-ranging creative team is based – but with the rare art of discretion, the sense of a “play” as a discrete element which exists outside the performance is absent. Instead we get a flow, a procession rather than a progress, that carries us from idea to idea via impressions not readily pinned down. While there isn’t a single narrative thread nor voice, there is the sense of a topic opening up via vignettes that sometimes fix us to the building and its users during the period of the war, and sometimes shift us to challengingly unfamiliar territory, so that our own role as audience varies between the collusive and the alienated.

To make this work, a certain amount of disorientation in necessary. Young soldiers in modern camouflage line the staircase as we follow up to a library where period attendants dance decorously with partners they never touch. Passages of personal reminiscence alternate with bursts of enthusiasm, reminding us that conflict generates a kind of background energy among those left back at home. We attend a lecture on fleas, the scourge of the trenches, and engage with complaints that the constant clacking of knitting needles is disturbing the peace of the library. But of course this is patriotic activity, woollen wear for the boys at the Front, and that domestic note is one of the connecting themes of the evening. The Germans’ cry of “Gott Mit Uns!” draws the British response “We Got Mittens Too!, and that capacity – endearing, encouraging and dangerous – to deal with the unthinkable by making it familiar re-echoes through the evening.

Obviously, the horrors of the conflict can’t be directly shown, but there are powerful ways of not showing them. Stretchers of bandaged and bloody books arrive for medical treatment, curiously poignant in this setting, and we become visitors in a camp hospital, where the beds may be occupied, empty or just flowered meadowland. The visual minutiae really do add the layers of resonance here, which makes it as much installation art as drama, encouraging a heightened level of audience awareness which is exhausting as well as involving. It’s a relief to sit down at a rawly energetic concert for the troops complete with sing-along and appalling jokes delivered with such spirit that you laugh at them. By this stage the audience is playing its own role, having absorbed the way small comforts become the essential tools of survival. Even so, knowing what we’re doing, when the tall chap in the white lace dress who’s been giving every suggestive nuance to Marie Lloyd’s “I Do Love You Cocky Now You’ve Got Your Khaki On” starts singing a different song, it still sends shivers down the spine.

This is subject-driven theatre, and perhaps there isn’t anything substantially new to say about the subject, but We Got Mittens Too! teases out local connections to create an elegiac, elegant and engaging tribute that marks a moment and calls up the memories of a time and place in a strangely moving manner.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson