On Saturday, a friend invited me to an open-air Shakespeare performance at Sheffield’s botanical gardens. Macbeth, performed by Heartbreak productions.
It was one of those wonderful moments of serendipity to discover that the setting and “framing device” for this production was a World War One rehabilitation hospital. Using a pared-down cast, supplemented by an atmospheric choir for background atmosphere and sound effects, the cast of professional actors were playing the parts in Macbeth via the characters of the patients, soldiers recovering from physical and mental trauma, and the efficient but kindly Nurse Ruth Jones.
Before the play started, the patients and their nurse introduced themselves: gallant, troubled Captain Laurence Smith, who recited poetry about his experiences of the First World War, jovial Private Charlie Thompson, and lovable buffoon, gardening expert Major Cecil Harvey. This introduction set the scene for Macbeth as a “play within a play”, and enabled the audience to see the value of the therapy that the hospitals provided: woodwork, literature, gardening and country air to sooth traumatized minds and bodies.
It was an excellent setting for the play, and made me think about the soldiers who recovered from their injuries at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell in the First World War. Although Newholme was officially a workhouse, a far cry from the Brighton Pavilion and the grand Clivedon estate, the fresh country air and the peace of the Derbyshire Dales must have seemed like a miracle after the madness, mud and misery of the trenches.
And I’ve been to see the well dressing at St Mary’s in Walkley, the suburb of Sheffield where I live. In the First World War, our area of terraced houses and hills would have been densely packed and very close-knit. The loss of fathers, brothers and sons in the First World War would have hit the community very hard. This year’s well dressing commemorates the young men lost in that war. The Walkley Community Centre, a beautiful Edwardian building, has a stained glass window with a list of Walkley men who were killed in the First World War, which is being restored and re installed this year.