Duncan Hall speaks to writer Sara Clifford who together with Zap Arts has brough the Great War back to life with her play Home Fires at Newhaven Fort

AS she researches a projected site specific trilogy about the First World War, writer Sara Clifford believes the effects of the “war to end all wars” are still being felt today more than a century later.

“It’s a shared story,” she says. “One or two generations on we are still feeling the impact of the horror of that war. It has been passed down, even if not directly spoken about. A lot of families still have that sense of horror about it.”

Home Fires is set at the very beginning of the Great War – documenting the move from a conflict which would “all be over by Christmas” to the gradual realisation that this was going to be a bloody battle unlike any other experienced before.

A cast of five professional actors and up to 60 dancers and drummers drawn from around Newhaven, Seaford and Eastbourne will be telling the story of a young couple, Clara and Joe, whose lives are completely altered by the events on the Front in a site specific promenade performance at Newhaven Fort.

As well as telling their fictional story, the play will reveal the contribution Newhaven and Seaford made to the war effort, based on oral histories collected by Clifford and Zap Arts during a series of workshops across the town.

Clifford has her own family story from the conflict.

“My original idea was based on my own family,” she says. “My great grandfather suffered shellshock from the war and ran away from his family. He was so traumatised he couldn’t cope. It was a really sad story. But the more we spoke to people, the more we realised it was a common story.

“The men couldn’t speak about what they had seen and experienced. There wasn’t very much counselling. The men tended to bottle it up, which had an impact on their families.

“In the workshops people would start off saying they had nothing to tell us, as their relatives never talked about it – but it meant everyone had to live with these horrendous events.”

In Clifford’s story Joe is a reservist who is sent to the front, leaving his wife Clara to take over his butcher’s shop.

“Clara believes in what she is being told, and right up until the end of the play is trying to hold onto it,” says Clifford. “She thinks somebody knows what they are doing, and that everything will be all right.

“We build up that picture with people waving the soldiers off, but then the realisation starts that people are dying in huge numbers. You can’t just go into war like that and come back unaffected.”

When writing the piece Clifford focused on three aspects of the story – the impact of war on the soldiers, the impact on the family, and the massive change in society which the war caused.

“Stories were coming back from the front making people realise this wasn’t quite what they expected, that it was horrendous,” she says. “People were being sent to slaughter basically.

“We have spoken to the modern-day armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and people who fought in the Second World War about how difficult it was to come home having seen such terrible things.

“With the family it was about how people coped when they were back at home.

“It meant a massive change in society – women’s roles changed completely as they started to work in factories, or as land girls, or in my story running a butcher’s shop.

“There was a change in social structure too – after people had fought alongside each other those class distinctions broke down.”

As well as tackling those wider themes, Clifford’s play will also bring to life some local stories lost in the mists of time.

“There were 20,000 soldiers in Newhaven and Seaford,” she says. “A camp was set up at Seaford Head – some of the road names around there reflect it. The soldiers were brought there to train and were shipped out abroad from Newhaven.

“The town was an important point of departure for supplies, both military and first aid.

“A point that came up a lot in the workshops was that during the First World War you could hear the guns in France all along the south coast.

“Near the beginning of the war, just before Christmas, the soldiers in Seaford were living in tents – 12 people per big tent. The conditions were terrible – little did they know how bad it would be in France – but there were protests and so huts were built for them. It was an unwritten and untold story in the run up to the war.”

The protests reflected what had been going on in society before war was declared – again a period often forgotten today.

“There was great unrest in 1910,” says Clifford. “Social structures were breaking down, people were protesting around the country against their living conditions. Things were changing – there is a sense that the war put things on hold. When people came back from the horrendous shared experience on the front they wanted a more equal society.”

To help recreate some of the experiences both on the front and at home Zap Arts is working with light projectionists Shared Space and sound designer Thor McIntyre Burnie who will be putting together an installation as part of the promenade performance. Many of the original oral histories will feature in the installation.

Set during the opening months of the war, Home Fires is set to be the first part of a trilogy, which will run in Newhaven until 2018.

The 2016 follow-up to Home Fires will focus on the experiences of conscientious objectors who refused to sign up or fight. Many were imprisoned in Newhaven.

And in 2018 the plan is to mark the centenary of the Armistice, using different angles to tell the story of what it was like when the guns stopped firing.

“It is interesting to move out from writing for black box theatres to using a big space and large cast,” says Clifford, who is also working on a new oral history project set around Stanmer Park later this year.

“Newhaven Fort is an incredible space – there has been a fort there since Neolithic times. The current fort was built in the 19th century during the Napoleonic wars. It’s fantastically atmospheric and steeped in history.”

It’s not the first time Clifford has worked in the fort, having previously penned The Port, The Beast And The Traveller in 2012 (see panel).

As with that production Clifford hesitates to call the results a community theatre production.

“This is high-quality, site-specific theatre, which involves local people both as participants and as the audience,” she says. “We try to take the audience on a journey with our fantastic creative team – to create an atmosphere and juxtapose what people wanted to believe and what was actually happening in this period.

“One of the questions we put to people in our workshops was what would you fight for, and whether you would go and fight now. It was such a different time and place to now.

“There were so many alliances before the First World War, which caused a domino effect nobody was able to stop. I don’t think it would happen in the same way now. Today people are able to access the real story – back then people wanted to believe that we were going to go in and sort all this out.”

Starts 8pm, free, but tickets must be pre-booked. Call 01273 517622.