As audience and orchestra alike took their seats for Sunday’s performance of “Asunder” at Sunderland Empire Theatre, it seemed the perfect setting to step back in time, being a music hall of the era.
The performance was commissioned by 14-18NOW as part of their ongoing series of internationally recognised works including visual art and sculpture, theatre, film and performance. This evening’s show brought together a newly composed musical score by Tyneside’s musical luminaries Field Music and Warm Digits, performed live on stage with the Northern Sinfonia creating a deliciously rich soundtrack to accompany the filmic explorations of Esther Johnson.
Johnson’s film showed us a Sunderland of the past through archival footage from both the IWM and BFI – illustrating familiar narratives of the First World War with poignant clips of both the home front including men and women at work, families in their homes and the devastated streets in the aftermath of German zeppelin raids and exerts from the famous The Battle of The Somme documentary created in 1916, showing men at the front line both at rest and during combat. Offering a contrasting narrative of Sunderland today, the archival footage was interspersed with contemporary scenes – highlighting the architecture of the city as well as its lasting industry in terms of boat building, showing the cavernous spaces inside the dry docks.
As narrators to the performance, the audience had the instantly recognizable voice of Kate Adie and Alun Armstrong to guide us through the potted history of Sunderland’s Great War – eschewing exerts from the Sunderland Chronicle and other local press. Playing to the locals – football took a central feature revealing the story of Conscientious Objector Norman Gaudie, one of the famous “Richmond Sixteen” (whose graffiti can still be seen on the walls of Richmond Castle where they were kept awaiting trial).
Perhaps more surprisingly was the revelation of the Blyth Spartan Ladies Football Team who maintained a dominion on the football league throughout the war years – with star player Bella Raey scoring 133 goals in one season. Though with all the progress that was seemingly made for women’s rights – it was a shock to hear that the FA banned women’s football after the war.
In summary, the performance provided a unique insight into Sunderland’s local war stories, the melding of sight and sound bringing a heightened sense of emotion to each new aspect uncovered. I would hope that there will be the chance of future performances or showing around the region.
By Rupert Philbrick