Trilingual Play Bás Comes to Féile an Phobail
Schizothemia Theatre Company bring their First World War drama to Belfast in the year of centenaries from August 1
A play which started life as a rather unusual academic dissertation is about to go on tour in England, Wales and Ireland, arriving at the Féile an Phobail festival in west Belfast on August 1. Its title is Bás, which means ‘shallow’ in Welsh and ‘death’ in Irish.
Put the two translations together and a shallow death in unspeakably terrible circumstances is an apt description of the fate suffered by so many young men in the trenches and battlefields of the dubiously-named Great War. The linguistic duality of the title lies at the core of the play, which is delivered in three languages: English, Irish and Welsh.
With the country awash with commemorative plays, exhibitions, books and more during a decade of centenaries, a production on this subject may seem a somewhat conventional choice for a group of five questioning, audacious young performers.
But, as Henry Collie, one of the founders of Schizothemia Theatre Company, explains, they are approaching this well-worn dramatic territory from what they consider to be a whole new perspective.
'The company’s vision is about creating new work, which can hold up a mirror into how we see society and how it sees itself. We accept that our perspective is entirely subjective and that there may be those who disagree with it, but a lot of mainstream art these days is not what it should be or is intended to be.
'Art has become a victim of capitalism,' Collie adds. 'It is at the mercy of market forces. It seems to be telling people that what they are doing is right or wrong. The company’s vision is to write and produce theatre, film, art, writing and music, which can reflect society in all its silliness and suggest new takes on previous assumptions concerning history, politics and social issues.'
It was in this spirit of youthful dissent and enquiry that Schizothemia was born. The cast of five, who are all in their early 20s – Collie, Thomas Russell-Jones, Harry Barrett, Joe Worthy and Ian Lowe – met and became friends when they were studying for an acting degree at the University of West London in Kingston-upon-Thames.
Collie was born in Dublin and moved with his family to Wexford before leaving Ireland for university in England. Russell-Jones, the son of a Welsh-speaking family, grew up in the new town of Milton Keynes in quintessential middle England; Barrett, Worthy and Lowe all hail from the north of England.
'We come from very different backgrounds and that is reflected in the characters in the play,' comments Collie, who, along with Russell-Jones, is the writer of Bás. 'In fact, I wrote the play specifically for these actors. In our final year, Tom and I had to do a dissertation together. We wanted to do something a bit different, something that was more than the usual dissertation kind of thing.
'The university was very good about allowing students to do outside acting work while studying and they gave us lots of facilities to work on our project. We started to focus on the centenary of the First World War and the idea of writing a complete play.
'We felt that in ourselves we had a niche market, the Welsh and the Irish. Bit by bit, the reality of staging the play and touring it started to evolve. We wrote a treatment and then the script, which has been through several drafts. We’ve performed it a few times on home soil, but now we’re working on taking further afield.'
In brief, the plot runs thus: Geraint, a Welsh non-conformist minister, and Pádraig, a young Irish guard from the west of Ireland, become trapped in a dug-out after a German night raid, leaving the rest of their regiment outside.
Pádraig is a strangely laconic young man, enigmatic and tongue-tied. His comrades don’t know what to make of him and, in their ignorance, give him a hard time. Slowly, it emerges that the reason for his silence is that he speaks virtually no English.
Geraint is a Welsh speaker, but the two Celtic languages are very different. Holed up together in claustrophobic isolation, they must find a common channel of communication. They resort to tracts of the Bible and painstakingly manage to construct a bastardised form of Irish and Welsh, while the agony of their plight grows increasingly desperate.
So, obviously, the play was inspired by Brian Friel’s Translations, in which a young Irish woman and an English soldier struggle to express their love through two incompatible languages – yes?
'Actually, no,' says Collie. 'I have seen Translations, but only after I wrote Bás. This play was inspired by Frank McGuinness’s Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, which is about three hostages, an Englishman, an Irishman and an American, imprisoned in a cell in Beirut.
When researching the play, Collie and his colleagues read up on relevant source material and spoke with those in the know. 'We had several conversations with a military historian, who gave us some fascinating insights into what happened during the war, things we would never have known. He said that Irish and Welsh soldiers were usually the first to be put on the front line. They were canon fodder.
'To make matters worse, they were not allowed to speak their own language, so they had to learn a few very basic words of English. And he told us about how young soldiers were encouraged to grow moustaches, to make them look older – some of the soldiers were only 15. As young guys ourselves, we were able to identify strongly with the characters.'
That sense of authenticity runs throughout the play; Collie was determined to 'get the language right, as we are very keen to take the play to Wales and to Ireland, particularly to the Gaeltacht areas'.
'I am an Irish speaker and Tom’s father is a native Welsh speaker, ' Collie continues, 'who helped with the Welsh translations. When I started doing some research I was startled by the number of people (in England) who were amazed that there was an Irish language. They thought it was just English spoken with an Irish accent.
'The other element that singles out the play is its perspective. It has always appeared to me that plays or films about the First and Second World Wars tend to be told from a gentrified angle, through the voice of the officer classes. If there are Welsh or Irish or northern soldiers, they are stereotypical portrayals, with no depth or complexity.
'We point to a side of the war which is far removed from posh English or enthusiastic Americans. We portray ordinary young men coping with the dullness and horror of being, not heroes, but victims of exploitation and disillusionment.'
Schizothemia has been set up as a company with a future, to be far more than a one-hit wonder. Its first production was a short play entitled Nick's Big Nice Play, about a right wing nationalist pitching his propaganda ideas to a film producer.
Picking up on the burgeoning support for the English Defence League, the British Nationalist Party and UKIP, the company intends to capitalise on the topical currency of the subject matter and develop it into a full length piece.
'Lots of people set up a theatre company, do one play then don’t take it any further, so they are always starting from scratch,' Collie observes. 'If you have a name and a strategy, venues and funders are more inclined to take you on.
'Schizothemia has a serious intent and a future. Whatever about any of us of doing other things, it is an entirety unto itself. If anyone leaves or goes away for a while, the remaining members can pick up the name and the mission and push them forward. We’d like to think we’re in for the long haul.'