Ross Ericson’s play The Unknown Soldier received rave reviewers at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is about to play at the Brighton Fringe. The script is also about to be published by Bloomsbury and Brighton Fringe will be holding their first ever book launch at Sweet Waterfront on 30 May 2016 to celebrate the fact, and to mark the opening of the play at Sweet Dukebox later that day.
Ericson took time out of rehearsals to talk to Glen Pearce about the publication, the play and the process of writing the piece.
The Unknown Soldier is touring following a successful debut last year – what can you tell us about it?
In many ways, it was a bit of a surprise. It was all very last minute. We had no plans for Edinburgh 2015 until a venue contacted my partner Michelle – who runs her own theatre company – about taking one of her shows up. Michelle didn’t really have anything on at the time – between tours – but I’d just been looking back through old scripts and was toying with the idea of a one-man show about WW1 and we asked if they fancied that and they did. This all happened less than two weeks before the registration deadline, so everything was put together in no time!
We had a fantastic opening weekend at Edinburgh – with a five and four-star review – and it just built up from there. After the festival, we immediately started getting enquiries from theatres and managed to fit the dates in between our other touring commitments. Now The Unknown Soldier is fast becoming our main project and we’re at Brighton Fringe before heading for a return visit to Edinburgh Fringe – this time at Assembly Hall in the Baillie room.
This show has been described as being able to convey the horror of WW1 by focusing in on the details, rather than the huge scale. What is the challenge as a writer to try and convey the scale of the horror?
I think the challenge is to make the horror personal. When people talk about WW1 they often talk in numbers or in reverence of the ‘sacrifice’ – generalising and sanitising the true violence. Men weren’t just shot they were cut in half by machine guns, their faces were blown off, their bones knitted together with carpentry nails – things we thankfully cannot imagine, but if you make this kind of horror personal to an individual, to someone who is recognisable to the audience, then maybe you can make it real for them.
It’s reported that you wrote the piece in response to Michael Gove’s comments about glorifying war – is that correct?
When I came up with the idea for The Unknown Soldier I suddenly thought ‘is there room for another WW1 play? This was back in 2014, so everybody was talking about doing something for the centenary and, although I knew I had a good idea with a new angle, I sort of talked myself out of it. But then Gove, education secretary as he was then, started going on about how our understanding of the conflict had been warped by left-wing intellectuals and that we should celebrate the great victory. Well when politicians start going on about honour and patriotism and sacrifice my hackles rise, and I felt I had to respond in the only way that I could. Perhaps there was room for another WW1 play, just to make sure Gove and his cronies didn’t turn it into some boys own story.
What was your research process like for the piece?
I was first inspired by a TV piece on the men that stayed behind after the conflict to build the great cemeteries. I started to try to read around this but there is little written about what happened after the guns went silent and It took some doing. I also collected some stories about everyday life in the trenches, some that my mum had told me about my grandfather who had served in the trenches, but it wasn’t until later on I suddenly thought of tying it all in with the Unknown Warrior – but when I did it all fell into place.
You’re a former soldier, did that shape the play?
My soldiering was just a short stint (through injury) and what feels a lifetime ago, but you don’t forget the training or the comradeship or that sense of what it is to be a soldier – which I don’t think has changed from then until now.
You write and perform, is that a difficult combination?
Not really. As a writer, you know who you are writing for intimately, so it makes things easier. What you have to be careful of is overindulgence or flattery. You have to be honest about yourself as a performer and approach the piece objectively. I am proud to say I am my most ardent critic, but success with something you have both written and performed does feed the megalomania.
The anniversaries of both the First and Second World Wars have seen renewed interest in the history of the conflicts, is that important?
I think it helps, especially with ticket sales, but as I said above everybody had something planned so you could get lost among the crush. It does certainly throw up some poignant moments for me – I will be performing this year in Stroud on the 100th anniversary of the start of The Battle of The Somme.
The show played Edinburgh Fringe and now Brighton Fringe. Are those types of festival important for writers and actors?
Yes, because it concentrates the industry. For a start reviews are important to a show in terms of selling it, and if you tour the provinces then you struggle to get them, so festivals are important in that respect. Also, they attract venues and bookers, which can bring longevity to a piece and most importantly, for a professional company, and long term income.
The play is being published by Bloomsbury and you’re having a book launch at this year’s Brighton Fringe, what is that like as a writer?
It’s all very exciting and life-affirming – it’s nice that a great publisher like Bloomsbury thinks your work worthy of putting in print – and when my play Casualties was published I remember thinking I’d made it, but I hadn’t. Trust me it is not the beginning of fame and fortune – but I like to think I might have left my mark for posterity.
What’s your view on the current state of new writing in UK Theatre?
I have seen some great new writing and some really bad stuff, both from new and established writers. The major problem I have these days – and I could be letting myself in for it here – is that writers forget their audience. It is all very well if you have something to say but people won’t hear you if they’re asleep. There is no excuse for being boring. I believe theatre has suffered because of this. Recently I heard an audience member come out of a piece I’d written for a British East Asian cast and say ‘I didn’t think I’d enjoy that so much”. It was if she had come to see something because she thought she should rather than because she wanted to – now that can’t be right can it? Theatre is supposed to be entertainment, and if you have a ‘message’ then surely you want to get that out to a wider audience and not just to the converted.
Also I am not keen on most of the new writers schemes run by theatres. They have a very narrow catchment, and may have discovered some great new voices but they are all singing from the same song sheet. Let’s cast the net further, support writers that are from all age groups, from all ethnicities, from all classes. Writers don’t learn to be writers from University but from life, and some graduate a little later than others.
What would be your top tip for would-be playwrights?
Don’t expect to make any money from it, write to entertain and inform not to preach, give your audience an experience they will remember and write from the heart as well as the head.
The Unknown Soldier is published by Bloomsbury and will be launched at Sweet Waterfront, Brighton on 30 May 2016
The play then runs at Sweet Dukebox 30 May – 5 June 2016 as part of Brighton Fringe, prior to touring.
For more information visit www.sweetvenues.com/events/the-unknown-soldier/