FEATURE: Asunder | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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What does Blyth Spartans footballer Bella Reay, Jewish Austrian composer Schoenberg, music hall star Vesta Tilley and Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley all have in common? They all feature as part of an extraordinary new collaborative production which commemorates the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

Asunder, which will be performed at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre on Sunday 10th July, has the stories of real people at its heart – from the tale of Bella Reay, the Blyth Spartans footballer who played for England in 1918, to the stories of train conductresses, conscientious objectors and those left behind while the men of the North East went to war. The film has been created by award winning filmmaker Esther Johnson, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley is the writer and creative producer, while a live score has been provided by Field Music and Warm Digits, who will be performing with Royal Northern Sinfonia.

It’s quite a roll call of talent, but it’s the stories that Esther and Bob have unearthed that are the real stars. “Much of my work is concerned with uncovering hidden social histories, so I was particularly interested in making a film that gave prominence to those who may not have been given space in the history books.” Esther explains. “I wanted to focus on the stories that you don’t hear about – moments of magic during the horror, attempts at finding normality in abnormal circumstances – to find a new way of understanding the war.”

Combining archive footage of life in Sunderland during World War I with new footage shot in the North East, Esther’s film owes much to the collaborative nature of the project. “It has allowed the cross-fertilisation of ideas, with influences flowing between all stages of the project, from narrative research, film production, music composition and film post-production.”

As Bob notes, Saint Etienne’s work has an epic, cinematic quality to it – indeed, the band have produced several films themselves alongside filmmaker Paul Kelly – and his valuable experience in the field has really come to the fore on this project. Bob has been a fan of Esther Johnson’s work since seeing her film Analogue Kingdom (a portrait of Gerald Wells, founder and curator of the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum). “I knew she’d be the best person to work with and pull memories out and get some beautiful shots. She was the first person I thought of.”

Having worked with Esther during the research phase of the collaboration in order to produce the script, Bob became particularly interested in stories of ordinary British people carrying on with their lives while the war was raging. “We discovered stories about people like Bella Reay, the Blyth Spartans footballer – women’s football was the biggest it’s ever been during WWI; Norman Gaudie, the Sunderland centre forward and conscientious objector; a man called Rob Hepple, who had been in pretty much every major battle including the Somme and was shot for desertion after he disappeared, presumably suffering from shell shock; women doing jobs which they’d never done before – doctors or tram conductors – there were plenty of stories to draw from.”

I wanted to focus on the stories that you don’t hear about – moments of magic during the horror, attempts at finding normality in abnormal circumstances – to find a new way of understanding the war

For Warm Digits, it’s the extraordinary subject matter has been a source of constant inspiration when it came to working on the soundtrack with Field Music. “This project has made me think about history, politics and its effect on very personal human situations. Reading and listening to people’s personal stories make me reflect on the

immensity of the effect the wars had on people lives.” One half of the duo, Andrew Hodson, explains.

“The subject matter is also endlessly powerful and gives us the chance to think carefully about how to create music which catalyses the film’s attempts to open up new ways of understanding the war and its previously unheard stories.” Says bandmate Steve Jefferies.

For Field Music, the opportunity to draw inspiration from orchestral music from the period was a real draw, as David Brewis explains. “One of the other things which intrigued Peter especially about this project was our love of the orchestral music from that period. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered in 1913, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in 1912. Bela Bartok and Maurice Ravel were composing, as was Claude Debussy, so it was a time of huge change in harmony and composition and we’ve dipped into that period for inspiration a lot.”

Additional musical kudos comes in the form of conductor Hugh Brunt, who has recently worked with Radiohead, and Sunderland’s own vocal group The Cornshed Sisters, who will be performing an a capella rendition of traditional Wearside folk tune The Rigs of Sunderland Fair. Northumberland-born journalist and war correspondent Kate Adie will be narrating the production. Two performances are planned, with an In Conversation event hosted by Bob Stanley taking place in between which will give even more context to the performances. “I’ll be in conversation with Nancy Bruseker, who’s writing a book on Vesta Tilley, a music hall star who opened Sunderland Empire in 1907. She used to go around music halls to convince men to sign up and go to war. She was a male impersonator and, as the war involved a lot of breaking down of traditional gender roles in the work place, she broke down those gender roles in a different way as the biggest music hall star in the country.”

A collaborative production of such magnitude and importance adds yet another feather to the cap of Sunderland’s increasingly exciting cultural offering, setting the city on track for their City of Culture bid in 2021. As Bob notes: “The Empire is a real piece of history and has a connection to the story. Having Field Music and Warm Digits do the soundtrack is really important – I can’t think of another city that has such a loyal artistic base.”

Asunder is performed at Sunderland Empire on Sunday 10th July.

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