In August 1914 a group of gardeners wrote their names on the wall of the Thunderbox, an outdoor toilet in the Heligan Estate. It was a last act of hope and camaraderie before marching off to fight in the first World War. Of the 13 men known to have enlisted, just four survived…
The story of those men… their families, their friends and their community… is being brought vividly to life in a remarkable and heart-warming new play that marks the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI.
Hosted in two of Cornwall’s most iconic venues: the Minack Theatre and the Lost Gardens of Heligan itself, from 21st to 31st of May, it is a story with great resonance for audiences of all ages.
According to the play’s author Rebecca Mordan, “The story is tied directly into life, love and loss in a small community and the way in which small families share their lives. It examines how intimately they are connected and reflects upon the small and highly localised interactions that bind us together – and the huge, national decisions that tear us apart. I also explored the gaping holes that are left when individuals are plucked from communities never to return… and with no possibility of an resolution.
“At the same time, the play is full of the joy and laughter that characterise everyday village life. Unlike most stories with war at their heart, my story focuses on relationships and reflect women’s experiences of war – the wives and girlfriends, sisters and mothers – as well as the men who marched away.
“It was commissioned as a war story… but I wrote a love story.”
Before I Wake – which takes its name from The Child’s Prayer – is set in a Cornish fishing village. From the outset we discover that life may be challenging, money may be in short supply but gossip and good-natured banter are in here in abundance. We are drawn in by the characters we recognise in our own lives… and we quickly learn to embrace their fears and their dreams. What’s striking is how young so many of them seem. And how innocent. With good reason… many who enlisted were still in their teens.
We also discover how the spectre of war is ever present… emerging into the light in a children’s game… in a church service… in the handing of a white feather.
And as events unfold, we realise that life will never be the same for anyone in that community or so many others like them across the entire country.
“It brought everything to life…”
This production is, in fact, the second airing of Before I Wake. Originally commissioned by the Cornwall Youth Theatre, it ran for just three performances in 2014 to mark a century since the start of World War I hostilities.
Although it was extremely well received, there was some trepidation among the relatives of the gardeners, concerned at how their forebears would be portrayed. They need not have worried.
Barbara Palmer, granddaughter of Charles Ball one of the central characters in the play admitted to finding the 2014 show “quite emotional… seeing it all played out. Ahead of the show I wasn’t sure what to expect… I had no idea how Charles and other figures would be portrayed, but it was wonderful… it all fell into place and brought everything to life”.
It’s a view shared by Trounce Guy, great nephew of William Guy (who, at just 17, was one of the youngest of the gardeners). “I think it’s very important that young people see the play because it shows that life at the time wasn’t all sad and miserable, but was actually very joyful. Village life was close to nature and very close-knit… and it was that way of life that Will and the other gardeners went off to war to protect. I’m really looking forward to seeing the play again with some of the other relatives. It’s a living memorial… it made it all seem real”.