Will Harvey’s War: Paul Milton Q&A

Will Harvey's War

Will Harvey's War - Credit: Archant

Joe Meredith caught up with Paul Milton, the director of a new play at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham based on a work by local poet F. W. Harvey

Dress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media Ltd

Dress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media Ltd - Credit: Archant

Unless you have abandoned the trappings of modern life to live under a rock out in the deepest woodlands of the Cotswolds, you’ve probably realised this year marks the centenary of World War I.

Because of this, there is a national effort to remember the sacrifices made in 1914-1918, and to celebrate the great works of art inspired by the tumultuous period in Europe’s history. A brand new play at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham is one such example, and is part of a county-wide project inspired by World War I.

Dress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media Ltd

Dress rehearsal of Will Harvey's War / Picture by Carl Hewlett/TWM - Thousand Word Media Ltd - Credit: Archant

Paul Milton, Director of Will Harvey’s War, has had his work cut out turning an unpublished, semi-fictional novel from the 1930s into an exciting stage play replete with live music and physical theatre. I visited Paul at the Everyman to find out more.

• What is Will Harvey’s War based upon?

“It’s based upon a novel that was written by F. W. Harvey (Will Harvey) in 1935 and never published. It was rediscovered in about 2011 and, because we wanted to do something really unique to commemorate World War 1, I thought it’d be great to use this unpublished book as the basis of the play. I managed to get hold of a copy of the original manuscript, which is barely legible, and it’s now a play with around fifty people in it!”

• For those unfamiliar with F. W. Harvey, who was he?

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“He was known as the poet laureate of Gloucestershire, but most people know nothing about F. W. Harvey, apart from the F. W. Harvey Society.

He went to fight with The Gloucestershire Regiment during WWI, was captured in France and was taken as a prisoner of war in Germany – when he wrote most of his great poems. Afterwards, he returned to Gloucestershire and lived in the Forest of Dean where he worked as a solicitor for the rest of his life.”

• How would you describe his poetry?

“Because his poems were written a hundred years ago, we read them now and think, “Oh gosh, they’re so sentimental!” It’s a way we don’t like poems to be anymore. But as a taster of what life, literature and language was like at the time, they’re great.

He was incredibly homesick as a prisoner of war, so all of his work was about Gloucestershire – whatever he wrote, wherever he was, everything was about Gloucestershire.”

• How would you describe the novel?

“The book is basically made up of five separate books. It starts off with his childhood in Minsterworth, then goes to his time at school in Blackpool, then his university years, his life as a solicitor in Chesterfield and, finally, his experience of World War I. Because we’re commemorating World War I and celebrating Gloucestershire, we’ve concentrated on the first book, his childhood in the county, and the final book, his experience during the war.

The main reason I think the novel was never published is because you’re never quite sure what it is. It’s a real hybrid – not quite autobiography, not quite fiction. The most dramatically exciting things that happen to him in the book, like having an affair with a gypsy girl who dresses up as a man to be with him at the Front, are things that didn’t actually happen! They’re fantasy. Because of this, we can’t really say the play is a biography – so we’ve said this is, in essence, a fictional adventure story.”

• What challenges did you face adapting the novel into a play?

“What F. W. Harvey is really famous for is his poetry, so I have included five or six of his greatest poems in the play – that’s been a particular challenge; to make sure we could fit them into the story where they don’t exist in the book.

The book itself is very articulate and intelligent, but many of the sequences are undramatic. For example, a debate about the plus or minuses of being a Roman Catholic in 1918 is difficult to make work on stage. So I’ve hinted at the things that are really important to him, but avoided dwelling on what isn’t dramatically exciting.

What people really want when they come to the theatre is an adventure story – whatever they come to see it’s got to be a story where there’s a lot of adventure, movement and music. So another challenge has been to take a book that could be seen as quite dry and liven it up.”

• How have you used sound and other elements on stage?

“We’ve gone down quite a stylised route. In some scenes the dialogue is naturalistic, then – in order to accommodate the poems – we’ve decided that when Will Harvey’s emotions run high, he ceases to talk in a naturalistic style and he becomes quite poetic. When everyone’s emotions become very heightened, the actors cease to speak and we use the music of a brass band along with physical theatre elements.

The Cheltenham Silver Band will perform work by composers such as Holst and Elgar. We’ve also got Every Voice, the Everyman’s community choir, singing as farm hands throughout the piece. When Will goes off to fight at the Battle of The Somme, the Gloucestershire-based choir sings songs of the period as he is remembering home.”

• And this is part of a year-long project in Gloucestershire?

“That’s right. The year-long project is called ‘Gloucestershire Remembers World War I’, and that’s a collaboration between the Everyman, the Wilson Art Gallery and Museum, the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, the History Press and Gloucestershire Archives.

The play launches the project, which will be followed by exhibitions at the art gallery, online resources from the archives, databases from the museum, residencies at a number of schools and a rural tour of another play in Spring – so for us this is a huge amount of work.

Also, because the novel was never published, we are going to publish it to coincide with the opening of the play and sell it front of house. It’s all been done through the F. W. Harvey Society; when I said we were planning on dramatising it, the society though this would be a great time to try and get the book published, and they approached The History Press.

This is a production about Gloucestershire, for Gloucestershire. Everybody’s welcome.”


For Katie Jarvis’ review of Will Harvey’s War, visit: www.cotswoldlife.co.uk/home/will_harvey_s_war_at_the_everyman_theatre_1_3712843

For more about ‘Gloucestershire Remembers World War 1’ visit: www.glosremembers.co.uk