When rehearsing any play there is always a sense of trying to find a certain level of authenticity. When performing a play such as Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance then this becomes a critical part of the production. Most of the characters are from a northern mining town in the late 19th century which presents its own difficulties. However, four of us are playing serving soldiers which creates an even bigger challenge.
Most of the work in terms of characterisation has been done for us by John Arden; his writing is special and allows us to define the four soldiers. However, the extra dimension is needed in making very unmilitary actors seem at least remotely military. We were fortunate enough to have the help of Kevin Hicks, of The History Squad, attend a rehearsal and give us some insight into the life of Victorian soldiers.
Detail was the most important part of what Kevin brought for us. Knowledge of a soldier’s life at that time, facts that may not become apparent in our production but sit in our minds as we perform: having fought in Afghanistan and South Africa an average squaddie would be deeply tanned; moustaches were required by military regulation; a long serving Private soldier could earn more money than his Serjeant. The most interesting fact that has had a direct bearing upon our production was the Swagger Stick. Modern military officers will have their walking out stick but this item was something every private soldier would have had out of barracks, so we have found a place for them in our show.
Kevin then drilled us which was what I was dreading, expecting to be shouted at and charging around the rehearsal room. However we discovered that the Serjeant would have been much quieter then the modern, screaming, drill sergeant; orders sharp but quiet. We then learnt how to stand easy, at attention and turns left, right and about turn. All sharp but much more straight forward than the more, what we might term, militaristic movement of the modern soldier. Suddenly we felt more authentic as Victorian soldiers because this was something we could do.
Kevin was a great help to us but he brought something else to our work. Kevin is himself a veteran and gave us an insight into squaddie mentality. He talked openly of fighting for his life and seeing comrades fall beside him. This struck a chord with all of us lucky to be there but especially with me: when I saw Kevin speak about these things I saw Serjeant Musgrave’s – and by extension John Arden’s – words step from the page and speak to me from my own world about a kind of reality that I had never and will never experience. I hope I will be able to channel that experience into my performance as it’s men like Kevin that Musgrave, the play and, hopefully I, speak for.