Composer: Andrew Smith
Director: Matt Baker
Choreographer: Sharon Watson
Reviewer: Mel Duncan
‘The dying soldier shifts his head, to watch the glory that returns.’
These lines, by Welsh poet Siegfried Sassoon, form the fundamental wish of artistic director Craig Morrison when sculpting this piece. Not to glorify the war, but attempt to offer up some form of reverent remembrance and thanks for their act of unselfishness, and to view the war from a more personal perspective. Morrison selected a number of respected locals artists to bring his vision into being, and the event incorporates a mixture of dance, drama, music animation, and pyrotechnics to do so.
Morisson’s inspiration for the theme of ‘Honour’ was the poetry of Hed Wynn (Blessed Voice). This Welsh bard served with the 15th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and is best remembered for being the winner of the black chair, at the 1917 National Eisteddfod. The bard submitted a poem entitled ‘Yr Arwr’ (The Hero) to the Eisteddfod Secretary while on active service in France. Hed Wynn won the coveted bardic chair posthumously, and it remains today, in his home Yr Ysgwrn.
The poems ‘My Love’ and ‘War’ spoke specifically to Morrison. They defined the inevitable shift of thought which must have affected a generation of men in such a personal and tangible way.
Pre-show for this event was very low-key, period archive footage shown on a large screen, and actors milling among the gathered audience gives no clue to the spectacle about to unfold. A large screen covering the full side of a building contains the word Honour in simple white text.
Honour opens with a reading of Hed Wynn’s ‘My Love’, the beauty and hope captured in a wonderful animation sequence using the full screen transports the audience to a land evocative of the North Walian countryside in which the poem was composed. A sensitive and beautiful folksong featuring Welsh harp provides a fitting underscore. As our focus shifts to Salford, the screen fills with Industrial images. The simplistic set is used well by Matt Baker, each character separated on a different piece of staging, allowing the audience to consider their personal experience of war, in a clear and engaging manner. The mother’s pain and fear, encapsulated so fully by Jo Higson, in contrast to the guileless wide-eyed boy, Danny Childs, keen to claim the King’s shilling, shows the skill of writer Helen Newall, immersing the audience into the confusion of angst and excitement this period brought into the home. The persuasively worded entreaties such as ‘Join the Salford pals’ coercing our young soldier to do the honourable thing, are delivered in a silver-tongued style evocative of period recordings by actor Ben Tolley.
It is a crying shame that the final sequence of dialogue was unable to be heard, allowing the audience to bring closure to the story, however the filmic underscore and fireworks were simply too loud. A spectacularly complex animated sequence added to the confusion. The elements alone were spectacular, but it was impossible to take them on board simultaneously.
A return to clarity arrived with the Pheonix dance company. The skilful choreography by Sharon Watson was emotive and personal to each dancer. The filmic sequence was simple and enhanced the live movement on the set. The soldier held aloft was a particularly moving image.
A stunningly pure soprano voice ringing out across the square brought the most beautiful sense of calm and dignity to proceedings – Joel Colyer simply entranced the audience with Pie Jesu.
The choral piece which followed was sensitively directed by Jeff Borradaile, who clearly had the choir under control. Andrew Smith chose to use lines from Sassoon’s ‘How to Die’ as the lyrics for this piece. Although cleverly and technically constructed, it did not feel like the right choice for this event. Something less complex would have been more instinctively pleasing to the audience, allowing them to internalise what had been witnessed.
The Exhortation Anthem went someway to providing this moment. A more spiritual and reflective piece, the melodic line almost recitative at times, surrounded by a wealth of harmonies. Although the top line was a little invasive at times, and hindered the lower parts, this provided a reflective end to Honour.
Honour was a huge commemoration of the First World War, and the event provided an immersive, inclusive experience for all who attended. Craig Morrison urged the audience to experience Honour ‘with their eyes hearts and ears’. The moments truly created with audience in mind, and with a clear, focused will to engage the individuals commemorating alongside the artistic team, allowed them to experience, and remember the fallen with a true sense of dignity and Honour.