TOM Spencer, producer for Verity Standen projects, told EDWIN GILSON about the immersive musical experience based around the theme of wartime conscientious objection.

FOR centuries artists have wondered about the most effective way to portray war, and all it entails. Very few have taken quite such an innovative approach as composer Verity Standen, who is exploring the experience of conscientious objectors in the First Word War in a site-specific project at Newhaven Fort.

The building is the last of the Army defences on the cliffs overlooking Seaford Bay. During the war it was linked with Seaford, the site of a work camp that is now buried beneath the town. The North Camp hosted conscientious objectors who were awaiting deportation to France but also those who refused to fight and set to work on the roads between Seaford and Newhaven.

Standen makes use of local volunteers, many of who have never sung before, to conjure the atmosphere those men felt; trapped in a fort, gazing across the sea to France. Visitors can walk around the fort and listen to the stirring choral songs of the collected male voices.

As producer Tom Spencer says, “We wanted to fill the spaces in which men were imprisoned 100 years ago with men from 2017. We have everyone from students to retired gents taking part; they all have different views on politics, war and peace.”

The idea began when Claire Doherty, director of Situations, prominent producers of art projects, tasked Standen with creating a piece of work based around conscientious objection. Standen is no stranger to presenting unorthodox work, including a piece in which audience members were hugged by a singer to hear the song “from the inside out”, but this proposal was a new idea even to her.

Standen’s team visited Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire, where 16 conscientious objectors were infamously imprisoned during the war. “It was at this stage that we realised those men were the tip of the iceberg, the poster boys,” says Spencer. “So then we started looking into places on the South Coast where more people who refused to fight might have been shipped to France. Newhaven Fort was one such location.

“From that viewpoint you can see across the sea to France where these men believed they would meet their death. You can burrow down into tunnels which were built for munitions storage – they have a prison-like quality about them. We thought we could tell the story from 100 years ago but also make a great musical experience in the great acoustics of these tunnels.”

Refrain is being produced in association with the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, whose artistic director Laura McDermott said the project was particularly pertinent. But why, specifically, does the piece have resonance for our times?

“There’s definitely something about the centenary of conscription in 1916,” says Spencer. “The project has become a larger beast, hence why it’s now 101 years on. There’s also a big question over what is the best way to take an alternative view on war while we continue to be involved in conflict around the world.

“Instead of just offering a sculpture or a peace garden, we liked the idea of making something live with people from that place. The volunteers explore the history as they help make the piece, which sparks some really interesting conversations about what peace and objection mean now.”

The experience is just as eye-opening for visitors. Spencer says knowledge of the story is not necessary – the strong impact of the piece will be felt either way. “It opens an emotional window that bypasses the head and goes straight to the heart.”

Newhaven Fort, June 9 to 11, For more details and tickets visit: or call 01273 678822