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AAA Music | 25 May 2024

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A Time And Place: Musical Meditations On WWI – Live @ The Barbican

| On 23, Sep 2014


Thursday 18th September, London

As soon as you set foot in the Barbican Hall, the time became dilated; it was significantly slowed down. Even before you ended up sitting in your seat, you were already accommodated by a rural scenic design: fields, trees in the distance, high clouds; you could also hear the voice of a nightingale chirping. It was like if you had to sharpen your senses to catch all the references and the allusions inspired by the scenography.

Since its first moments, A Time and Place appeared as a strong and intense show; a project which was born two years ago, thanks to the deep research work done all around England by Sam Lee, Becky and Rachel Unthank, and which had been creatively developed until its final embodiment, the one presented on the Barbican stage. From the introduction, given by Sam Lee, the show reflected a deep commitment towards all the lost souls of the WWI. Or better, as the singer and song-collector specified, towards the “lost voices” of that distant and truculent war. A Time and a Place was a moving tribute not only to the memory of the conflict, but also to the “emotional impact of the battle on the families back home”.

The three young artists, accompanied by a small orchestra of skilled, eclectic and dedicated musicians like Nico Brown (a WWI specialist) and Adrian McNally (also Rachel Unthank’s husband), was able to revive, in little more than an hour, the anguish after a departure for the front line, the desperation for the ones who didn’t comeback, or the joy but at the same time the inner drama of the survivors. Through revisited and updated songs, through poems which had been set to music, through brand new tunes inspired by the conflict and through an intensive fieldwork crowned by touching field recordings (like the narration of a Zeppelin crashing in a private backyard), the trio brought back some of the feelings and the images of that period: memories with a century on their shoulders.

The impression on the audience was poignant – you could vividly notice that many tears were barely held back. Even if World War One is a composition of hundred years old flashbacks, and even if no one among the public had fought during the conflict or lived those atrocities in first person, the sentiments that these tunes awoke were pulsating and still sorrowful. They had the ability to leaf through an imaginary black-and-white photo album where all the feelings experienced by parents, grandparents and uncles were collected together. Songs like ‘The Bold Privateer‘, a traditional tune from Devon, or the touching oldie ‘Spring 1919‘ are part of a common heritage which is still powerful when it comes to arouse emotions.

Along with the implications behind these songs, along with their historical significance, also the interpretation that the artists gave was clearly sincere and conscious. An example was the heartfelt duet of ‘Testament of Youth‘ between Sam Lee, who embodied the soldier and poet Roland Leighton, and Becky Unthank, who dressed the clothes of his girlfriend, the writer and pacifist Vera Brittain. The song, which is an adaptation of a fragment chosen from Vera Brittain’s memories, put on stage a desperate but poetical call-and-response between the couple – through the verses that they sent each other during the conflict, the musicians had been able to recreate the universal grieve felt by two lovers parted by a war.

A Time and Place can, in this way, be considered as a fictional but accurate summa of WWI; of its memories and its characters. The decision to make the show as a collection of emotionally charged individual moments is arguably the only fault behind the project, which could have been even more powerful and incisive acting as a narrative whole.

Marco Canepari

A Time and Place: Musical Meditations on the First World War from Beat13 on Vimeo.