It is the biggest show to hit York since last year’s Mystery Plays, and in some ways even more ambitious. Blood + Chocolate will see a cast of 200 recreate York at the time of the First World War, using the city’s landmarks as a backdrop.
Each night for 18 nights, they will take an audience of 300 on a journey through the streets of York and back in time.
Created as a curtain-raiser to next year’s centenary commemorations of the start of the war, Blood + Chocolate will mix live theatre and film to tell the story of the Rowntree workers who went to war – and those who stayed at home.
Written by acclaimed city playwright Mike Kenny (York Mystery Plays 2012, The Railway Children) it explores York’s singular experience of the conflict. It was a time when the Chocolate Works was becoming a dominant force in the life of the city – a firm run by a family of Quakers, a religion with pacifism at its heart.
To explain all about Blood + Chocolate, we turned to two of the professional actors in the production who are working alongside the community players.
Richard Standing has performed regularly with Northern Broadsides and has appeared on TV in Holby City and Coronation Street.
He plays Conscience in Blood + Chocolate – a conscientious objector.
Her role is that of Mother, a Rowntree worker who sees her sons go off to war.
Here Richard and Lisa talk through the main themes of the production…
The Rowntree link
Richard: The ambition of it is tremendous. I play a character which in the play is called Conscience, who’s a conscientious objector. Obviously that links in very strongly with the Rowntrees, being members of the Society Of Friends, Quakers.
There were thousands of conscientious objectors. There were situations where people would say they were prepared to carry stretchers and they’d get to basic training and that piece of paper would be ripped up. You were given a uniform and a rifle and you’re in the army – and if you disobey you can be shot.
Lisa: I play Mother, who is a widow who works for Rowntree’s, and four of her teenage sons join up – even the two who are under age. And three of them don’t come back from the front at Ypres. One does come back but he’s severely shell-shocked.
Richard: I thinks she’s quite heroic, in the sense that real heroes are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They’re not wearing capes.
Lisa: What I found interesting is Joseph Rowntree. He was seen as a paternal figure and a leader and they were Quakers. And part of Mother’s storyline is when Joseph Rowntree decides it’s all right for his son to go to war, it changed their idea of duty.
Richard: When you have a community that lives and works so collectively, the impact of something like a war is so much greater.
Lisa: Because it is one big family in effect. Rowntree leads that family.
Drama of war
Richard: It asks lots of questions: about war, about what we did and what we should do. I hope when people go away they think “what would I do, how would I cope?” And also have some sense of the admiration of what that generation deserve for what they suffered and managed.
Lisa: It asks questions but it doesn’t immediately attempt to answer them.
Richard: I’ve got two sons, they’re 20 and 19 now. I think about how I would behave myself and how it would reflect upon them – because Conscience in the play has got four children – and how strongly you would have to feel to let them suffer to for whatever your decisions were. But also you had to be prepared to give them up.
Lisa: It was a different time. Now we do have more personal choice. We are more individuals.
Richard: And interestingly, less faith in lots of things, be it country, God or duty.
Lisa: We’ve lost the taste for that now, haven’t we? Because we can’t quite be bothered to go and help the Syrian people.
Lisa: For this we’ve all got earpieces in, and microphones. At the moment, we’ve got Alan [director Alan Lane] saying “Do that, go there”. And we will have some of that on the night. It’s him that’s masterminding the whole thing and making 200 people do what he wants.
Richard: If the writing’s that good, and you’ve got some kind of aptitude for the profession, you are trying not to get in the way of the play.
Lisa: Alan keeps saying, “don’t act”. And you don’t really need to with these words and the images that Alan and Lucy [associate director Lucy Hind] are creating.
Fun, tears and terror
Richard: Mike’s written this brilliant journey.
Lisa: Lots of little vignettes, little scenes. It’s very filmic actually. And I’d like to say that it isn’t all horrendous doom and gloom. There’s a lot of comedy.
Richard: There is fun in it and there are also things that are beautiful in it, in the way that beautiful can be pretty and also slightly terrifying.
Lisa: Mike always writes with humour and warmth and humanity, and there’s a lot of that in it. So I wouldn’t want people to think they’re going to come to something totally miserable.
Richard: It looks like cinema, and feels and sounds as intimate as radio. And also in a sense they’re wagon plays. We rehearse a little scene, we could do it in this room – but when you go down to The Mount and there’s hundreds of people, there’s nurses, there’s choreography and there’s men marching – that’s astonishing.
Streets as a stage
Lisa: Just the fact of being in York in those ancient streets in the beautiful buildings from different periods – that’s just a privilege for me.
Richard: It’s the best set in the world.
Lisa: When you turn that corner and you come to the Minster –
Richard: – thousands of years of history right there in front of you. And however well somebody knows the city, to be able to re-imagine a space. If you see one person dressed as a soldier in the street you might think, “that’s interesting”. But when you see a group of men marching past and you’re waving flags, you suddenly question what reality you’re in.
You don’t see the shops any more, you see the stones. And the stones are forever. And the city might as well be forever because the history’s so great and so long.
Lisa: It went quite smoothly last night, and that’s because most of the community cast have been rehearsing for weeks, if not months. And the planning team has been planning for three years.
Richard: In culinary terms, somebody’s been slow cooking a brilliant goulash, and we come in at the end and we’re paprika, we’re salt, we’re pepper. And that’s what it’s about really. How they achieve it – with a military determination and organisation, ironically.
Lisa: Half of my scenes are with a lady from the community players. It’s great. Alan has said we have got to lead by example, but a lot of them are totally professional.
Richard: The man who threatened to shoot me last night also bought me a pint. We’re picking up names as we go along.
Lisa: And some of the younger ones want to be actors. So we might be working with them next year professionally.
Richard: There are certainly people we’re working with that I would be happy to work with at any time in anything.
Richard: There’s two people now trying to paint the barrage balloon. The costume room looks like four film sets.
Lisa: It’s unbelievable the number of costumes they’ve got to do. Anna [designer Anna Gooch] who’s designed the costumes, she’s superb. The detail – my brooch, they’re fussing to try and get it right, and they’ve 400 costumes to make.
Richard: Even if you fall slightly short of magnificent, it’s going to be worth it. The scale of what they’re trying to do and the efforts that have been made, it’s that big an ambition.
Lisa: A lot of people in the community cast talk about the Mystery Plays from last year. I hope that people will never forget the experience.
Richard: My hopes for the production are that people come, open-hearted and open-minded. Because the play is only half of it, the audience is the other half. Somewhere between our imagination and theirs, something really brilliant could happen.
- Blood + Chocolate is produced by Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal and Slung Low
- It is a promenade production with scenes on the streets of York. Performances start at the Theatre Royal at 7pm each night from Thursday, October 3 to Sunday, October 20. To book, go here
- To read more about the production, see the Pilot Theatre website