Johnson Willis who plays the Chaplain (amongst others) in Mother Courage and Her Children isn’t one for sitting around. With Imperial War Museum North situated directly across from The Lowry he took the opportunity to learn a bit more about the history of war…
Looking out through the great glass windows of the Quays Theatre bar I can see, across the water, Imperial War Museum North and attached to the steel grey fence that surrounds the museum is a sign that reads “War Shapes Lives”. It is the theme of the exhibition and I think I’d better take a look. It might, after all, be a good way to warm up for what will be our first matinee performance of Mother Courage and Her Children.
Maybe I can find an old photograph of an army chaplain? I’ve had a bit of a run of clerical character parts recently. I’ve played a salvation army sergeant, a country vicar, a priestly counselor and now a Lutheran pastor. I’ve not yet played a Pope but I hear the job is up for grabs – I must call my agent! It’s a beautiful day and only the second time I’ve really felt the sun since arriving in Manchester. The water is like a millpond as I cross the white bridge over the canal.
Entrance to the museum is free, although contributions are gratefully received. Inside, several school parties of young children sit around as huge images depicting life in wartime Britain are projected on the high walls and a soundtrack of people’s personal experiences plays. I remember that in the first scene of Mother Courage, the recruiting sergeant says that ‘some towns have gone seventy years without any war whatsoever’. Well, it’s about that long since the Second World War ended and although there have been many battles fought around the world in the intervening years, most of us have no idea what war is really like. Barbara, one of the red shirted ushers at today’s matinee remembers. She tells me about it as we eat lunch in The Lowry cafÃ©. So do many of the older members of the audience.
Back in the museum my research gets some results. In a glass cabinet I find a helmet worn by an army chaplain named Canon Hussey. It’s very battered and looks as though it’s been shot through, which is a bit ominous. Also, I find a photograph of Chaplain The Reverend Charles Edward Dixon. He’s bald, pale and thin. Great, I think. That’s why I got the part!
The matinee audience is brilliant. The students in particular laugh freely at the ridiculous and chaotic situation that the self-serving characters of the play find themselves in. They even laugh at the tragedy of it all. Maybe that’s how we honestly deal with it, laughing in the face of adversity. A woman comes up to me at the box office after the show and says how wonderful she found the production. She is visibly moved and possibly old enough to remember. I think that in our own way we’ve made a contribution to that exhibition – War Shapes Lives.