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Thursday, 30 October 2014

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Soldier’s story is shared in silence

IT seems a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it, a clown telling the story of a soldier’s experiences during the First World War?

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Aron De Casmaker is working on a one-man show about the First World War.

The soldier in question is Major Guy Bradley, who survived the battlefields of Ypres, among others, and returned to help shape his home town of Hexham.

The clown is Aron De Casmaker, who for several years was a principal performer with the renowned Cirque du Soleil before he settled in Hexham with his Tynedale-born wife, Rebecca Jameson.

And the play? Entrenched, a work in progress that will probably begin appearing in theatres at the end of the summer.

Aron was already exploring how the retrospective view of the First World War had been shaped by silence – “a lot went unsaid, maybe because there was no real purpose behind that war” – when he had a stroke of luck.

“Rebecca and I were talking to friends who are living in the home that has been in their family for generations,” he said.

“They were fascinated when I talked about this and suddenly said ‘hold on’ and went upstairs.

“When Elizabeth (Bradley) came back down, she dropped something on the table with a clunk and a cloud of dust.”

It was her grandfather, Major Guy Bradley’s, war diary.

A trained artist who was known, in happier times for his watercolours, there were illustrations throughout.

There was humour too, but most of all there was the prevailing sense of horror.

Aron said: “He never spoke about the war to his family, of course, but he suffered horrendous experiences and came home with shell shock.

“Some of his entries are just scribbles, but he lists what happened to his friends who were also from Hexham.”

Second in command of the 4th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, he was instrumental, when the Robb family turned the old White Hart pub on Fore Street into Robb’s department store, in having the arch over the entrance to the stables transferred to Beaumont Street.

That arch is now the Northumberland Fusiliers Memorial Gate at the entrance to the Abbey Grounds, commemorating comrades who fell during the First World War.

In the early 1950s, he also led the initiative to take over the derelict patch of land next to Hexham Abbey and drew up the designs for what has been, ever since, the Garden of Remembrance commemorating Fusiliers who fell during the Second World War.

In the intervening years, Major Bradley, who lived at Bridge End House in Hexham, also sat on the committee that brought electricity to the town.

And perhaps he sat on a planning committee, too, because he’s said to have influenced the design of several key buildings across Hexham’s town centre.

Last week, Aron and Rebecca, who was brought up at Burnlaw, near Allendale, performed their current production, Love and Red Tape, at Hexham’s Queen’s Hall.

Based on the bureaucratic frustrations they themselves experienced following their cross-border marriage – Aron is Canadian and Rebecca couldn’t even get a work visa or health insurance when she set up home with him in Montreal – it is exuberant and wacky in the extreme.

But at its core is a form of biting satire that can be tailored to any subject.

Aron said: “We certainly won’t be trivialising matters in Entrenched, because there was nothing trivial about World War One, other than its cause.

“The more I speak to people about their fathers’ and grandfathers’ experiences, the more I want to give a voice to their suffering.

“When they began digging those trenches to escape the machines and technology being used against them up above, they entered an alien world containing its own horrors.”

Entrenched will be a one-man show performed by Aron in silence in the guise, not of the circus clown we associate the art with in this country – but in the much more traditional character of the ‘beautiful idiot’.

Clowning comes in many forms trailing a truly international history, but the reception it receives can vary greatly.

“In Russia, say ‘I’m a clown’ and they treat you like a rock star,” said Aron.

“In America, they hate clowns, and then here there’s a real ambivalence.”

Unfortunately clowns in Britain were associated with painted faces, big shoes and silly hats, but as Aron pointed out, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were clowns. They also tackled some pretty dark issues, too.

“In native American traditions, among the Huron and the Navajo for example, there is the shaman clown whose role was to prepare a community for the ceremony they were about to take part in.

“They would make people laugh, because people who are laughing are much more open to the spiritual elements that are about to follow.”

In Italy, it is thought the masked travelling players espousing the satirical Commedia dell’arte were a response to the political and economic crisis of the 16th century.

While in France, the ‘bouffon’ style of jester and mockery was drawn from medieval times when Christianity became particularly hard core and anyone who was different – leprosy, dwarfism and homosexuality were common targets – were cast out as social pariahs.

“But at festivals, they were brought back and allowed to perform and be as rude and crude as they wanted, parodying the people who had thrown them out to live in the dumps and swamps.

“They could be killed at any moment, because their lives were worthless, so they had to develop enough charm to get away with what they were saying about the people who had ostracised and exorcised them in the first place.”

Society created its own checks and balances and in many cultures, the clown had been pivotal in that.

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