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Interview: Mark Espiner, co-founder of Sound&Fury talks to Diana Damian about Charlie Ward - an immersive, theatrical take of WW1

Immersed in near total darkness, surrounded by the sounds of war, of trenches and dreams, patients and conflict, the protagonist in Charlie Ward - you - experience being a patient at the onset of the First World War. Charlie Chaplin comes in the form of a rest-bite, stirring a journey both historical and personal. Part of 14-18 Now WW1 Centenary Art Commissions and produced by Fuel, Sound&Fury’s Charlie Ward is an experience for a single audience member that deals with the complex personal and cultural legacies left by the First World War, weaving through the figure of Chaplin, who is said was the cardboard-cut tramp occupying the trenches in the hope of stirring deadly laughter in the enemies.

Founded by Mark Espiner, Tom Espiner and Dan Jones, Sound&Fury is a collaborative, interdisciplinary company that brings together the language of immersive theatre with foley, sound, music and storytelling, keen on foregrounding the aural, relocating an experience in both senses and the imagination. In the past, the company have worked on pieces about the Trojan War, the Essex whaling ship and Moby Dick, and the Russian submarine Kursk, and have collaborated with venues such as the Young Vic and Battersea Arts Centre. We speak to co-founder Mark Espiner about the inspiration behind Charlie Ward, war casualties, immersive experience and sensory deprivation.

Run-Riot: Charlie Ward is an immersive experience that foregrounds darkness, sound and narrative to recreate the experience of a patient on Charlie Ward during the First World War. Except that you’ve also brought in Charlie Chaplin, and the very figure of the tramp as a different nuance to the story. Can tell us how Charlie Ward came about, and what were you interested in exploring?

Mark Espiner: I remember watching a documentary about US WW2 soldiers, writing to their loved ones during the war and saying “I’m alive and I’m drinking a coke.” That juxtaposition of war and history with a pop cultural icon really struck me. That image opened up the lives of these people in a different way for me. So, when I read a piece about Chaplin this year, marking his centenary in film, which mentioned that his films were screened on the ceilings of military hospitals to boost morale for the bed-bound wounded, a similar light went off. We wanted to explore the mind and thoughts and attempt a subjective experience of a wounded soldier, a young man, in 1914. Besides the horror of war, what was his experience? What would have formed him? What would have made him laugh? We started to research Chaplin and the War and found all sorts of fascinating connections. 

Run-Riot: Can you tell us about the research and rehearsal process that informed Charlie Ward, and some of the references that have inadvertently influenced the making of the work?

Mark Espiner: With my Sound&Fury collaborators and co-directors, Dan Jones and Tom Espiner, we set about watching a lot of early Charlie Chaplin films and reading about the hospital experience for the war wounded. We learned that pictures of Chaplin were shown to the brain damaged to see if they recognised his face, that Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sasson mentioned the little tramp in their letters and drew comparisons between him and the spirit of the indomitable ordinary soldier. We quickly settled on a choice of showing one film and using it as an axis for a sole experience of slipping in and out consciousness.

Run-Riot: You refer to “a personal no man’s land” when speaking about the psychological terrains which the show explores. This internal terrain marks a particular historical moment, a tension that you are engaging with, or reconstructing perhaps, through immersion, cinema, narrative. Can you tell us more about this intimate exploration, and the way the form informs the content of the piece?

Mark Espiner: We wanted to offer, in a subtle way, the subjective experience of being a casualty of war. As with all of our work there is a great emphasis on sound and the sonic landscape of the character. The first step towards creating an intimate setting, though, was to provide the context and confines of a hospital bed. It immediately limits the size of the auditorium to decide that the “seats” will be beds. But with this unusual theatrical setting, and feeling the soft texture of a wool blanket and lying prone to view a film, we hoped that the audience would experience a particular vulnerability. Dan Jones, who created the sound design, invested the ideas we had created together with a particularly immersive and quasi-internal sound world, and began to invest the images of the film with the subjectivity of the experience.

Run-Riot: One of the aspects of sensory deprivation that is often highly discussed, is the way in which it constructs a visual language authored by each audience member. Can you tell us more about the decisions behind the darkness, sound and lighting elements of Charlie Ward, and how the narrative emerges in these instances?

Mark Espiner: An element of audience complicity is central to Sound&Fury’s work. We have from the beginning attempted to provide a space for the audience to create and imagine, to offer a kind of “grace time” to engage with a story. Switching off the lights is a very simple theatrical tool which can be isolationary, but in the context of a shared experience of theatre it can conversely provide illumination. In this piece, as with another earlier work, which we made in collaboration with artists from Shunt, called Ether Frolics, the darkness is the canvas of the subconscious. In Charlie Ward, slipping from the flickering light of the projector and the “reality” of the ward into the darkness and the submerged thoughts of the patient, (whose bed the “audient” occupies) provides a kind of narrative dialogue, a conversation between two different levels of consciousness.

Run-Riot: Do you think of Charlie Ward as a memorial, as a critical history, or as a re-construction? In the past you have engaged with work that has held political and historical implications, that turns the theatre-maker into both historian and analyst- here I am thinking of, for example, Names of the Dead, a “musical war memorial” on the victims of the Iraqi war, made in collaboration with Mark Anstee, Stephen McNeff and Duke Quarter, and of course, Kursk, your collaboration with Bryony Lavery.

Mark Espiner: We have thought about this piece as a kind of memorial, or at least an access point to a time and a place. We didn’t want to make a full-on reconstruction in minute detail of a hospital ward. It’s not that kind of immersive theatre. It is more gestural. Mark Anstee’s work, which has addressed brilliantly some complicated issues - such as “friendly fire” or close combat - in the first world war isn’t historical or analytical but it is curious and questioning as this work is too. Kursk was an opportunity for us too to give a voice to largely unknown and secret warfare. So, in a sense it most closely resembles a memorial rather than a critical history or reconstruction, but I think I see it more as a provocative access point.

Run-Riot: Environment is central to much of Sound&Fury’s work- its construction, the approach and politics of immersion, and its theatrical nuances. In an earlier article you wrote for The Guardian briefly discussing Michael Hazanavicius’s The Artist, you emphasized the power of taking away voices from the actors, or delving audiences into complete darkness, arguing the value of our own responses to processes and environments that are unfamiliar. Throughout the work that Sound and Fury has made, what have you discovered about the construction of environments where audiences rely on different senses than they are normally used to?

Mark Espiner: As a company we have largely stuck to sight deprivation and heightening the aural sense. We have not really explored or experimented with smell or touch. Each piece has, through this approach, led us to important new ideas. For example, having seen one of our early pieces the late Richard Gregory, a professor and eminent scientist specialising in visual perception, was so fascinated by our language of theatre that he suggested we look more closely at sight and what visual experience is. That brought about our recent piece Going Dark which dealt with a man losing his sight. In each of our works we have, though, attempted to create shared theatrical environments. That we are all in the same room, going on a journey together, discovering ourselves through a story, those are all key elements in our joint creative vision. We have found that disarming the audience of one sense and heightening another opens a fresh way of appreciating or engaging with a story. It’s been an exciting and rich medium for us and one which are continuing to explore.

This event is part of
14-18 NOW