Chris Born is about to star in Calvary Theatre’s inaugural production Somewhere a Gunner Fires, written and directed by Tom Stuchfield. He spoke to Love London Love Culture about the production and what to expect…
Hi Chris, could you tell me a bit more about Somewhere A Gunner Fires?
It’s a First World War play, but avoids the typical focus of the Western Front. It is set on the often ignored Italian Front, and the writer does not limit himself to one particular side or nationality. It intertwines soldiers’ stories with those of civilians, and shows how even those not fighting could still be left with scars. Tom approaches the huge scale of this war through intimate moments and objects.
The show is formed of six different stories – what is your character Volker’s story? What was your first impression of him as a character?
I’ve actually been with the character for Volker for quite a long time, although he has developed and changed of course. A lot of the rest of the cast would say he’s their favourite character – I think because he’s this solid pragmatic man in the middle of utter chaos. He’s also a kind man- of course he has his flaws but I think the way he’s been written should make the audience feel quite sympathetic for him.
Volker’s story is of an Austrian builder, who leaves his Italian wife behind to go and fight. He promises to her that he won’t kill anyone (especially her fellow countrymen- which is largely who the Austrians were fighting in that area), but he befriends a very talented machine-gunner, and largely manages to earn the respect of other soldiers through his practical skills and doggedness.
Why do you think that the history of World War I continues to fascinate?
I suppose because it was the first war to really effect people in their civilian lives, in many different ways. Seeing the wounded coming back from different fronts, the way it was reported. What makes the play so fascinating is that it sees the affects of war as almost endlessly repeating itself, like it will go on to damage soldiers’ relationships, which will then effect their children’s lives, etc, etc. Also the fact that, for me, it’s all so interconnected; I love learning about how many battles were fought and the way they were fought, which isn’t really taught in school.
Was there anything in particular that made you want to take part in this production?
I’ve known Tom for a long time, and the play has had several different incarnations since 2014. I’ve been involved with all of them from the beginning. Toms writing has a wit and an edge, that is surprisingly sensitive. Also, the way that the play has developed is completely unexpected. The many ways that Tom has explored how different people were affected by the war is what makes the production so unusual and a joy to be a part of.
How would you say that Somewhere A Gunner Fires perhaps differs from other World War set plays?
What I feel is unique about this war play is that it takes a perspective from characters that are usually ignored or side-lined in the classic First World War narratives. One thing that Tom said to us before we started is to imagine that Journeys End is being played out in the background, but that our focus is on telling new stories. For example, one of the characters is an American soldier who is part of a propaganda regiment, sent specifically to not do any fighting, and it is these accounts that we don’t usually hear about. As well as this, he avoids sentimentality like the plague: the characters are not to be prised, pitied or even sympathised with. I think Tom is willing to use a dry sense of humour that others would shy away from.
What sort of research did you have to do on this particular piece of World War I history?
Tom lent me a book called The White War by Mark Thompson which gives a vivid account of the Italian front. Because I wanted to understand the conditions that my character would be living in, I particularly focused on chapters relevant to conditions in the Austrian trenches. The photos are extraordinary: they give a startling idea of how beautiful the surroundings were and yet how hopeless the conditions of the soldiers were.
What was your reaction when you first read the script?
I was actually quite shocked by how sharp and how funny it was. Tom is very willing to take aim at anyone and everyone, regardless of their story. I was also intrigued as to how the show would be staged: the ever-present narrator, the sharp transition between characters, the seeming lack of any set – it wasn’t clear when first reading the script how we were going to approach it. Several ideas were floated, until eventually we settled on our own style. If anyone wanted to stage this play in the future, I think half the work would come from working out how they would want to present the story. Unlike many plays, the writer does not give you any instructions.
How do you think audiences will react to the story?
I think with relief that this is not your conventional First World War story. I think they will be surprised by how much they like or dislike the characters, but also how this does not affect how enjoyable and distinct the play is. I hope it will encourage people to look at alternative histories and stories that aren’t told in the grander narratives of these events.
You can see Chris in Somewhere a Gunner Flies at the King’s Head Theatre from the 6th to the 24th February. For more information visit: http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/