Taking notes on the front line of conflict

Rebecca Thorn and Oliver Senton. Picture: Simon Richardson
Rebecca Thorn and Oliver Senton. Picture: Simon Richardson
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A new play looks at the dangerous lives of war correspondents – in song. Yvette Huddleston spoke to composer and director Helen Chadwick.

“One of the big themes is hope and despair,” says composer Helen Chadwick whose latest song theatre production, War Correspondents, is currently on tour and comes to Harrogate Theatre later this month. “They all risk their lives, hoping that someone will do something.”

Chadwick is co-directing the production with Steven Hoggett, choreographer and co-founder of Frantic Assembly, following the success of their previous collaboration Dalston Songs, commissioned by the Royal Opera House. “After Dalston Songs I really wanted to work with Steven again,” says Chadwick. “Then I met a man who had been a photographer in Chechnya during the first Chechnyan war. We had a cup of tea and looked at his photos. There was something about the normality of this ordinary family man and those devastating photographs...”

She contacted Hoggett and suggested they begin a new project looking at the lives of war correspondents and he immediately agreed. Their creative associate Miriam Nabarro had been a humanitarian worker in Bosnia, Georgia and the Congo and she had a wealth of contacts. “We went for a trip to Georgia for two weeks about three or four years ago,” says Chadwick. “They had a short war with Russia in 2008 and we interviewed about 15 people there.” Overall, Chadwick and Nabarro interviewed around 30 journalists who had covered a range of conflicts including those in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq and Liberia.

“Some of the people worked for the bigger agencies, there was an American journalist who worked for Associated Press, two who worked for the Guardian and one for the BBC and we have also interviewed independents.” Chadwick says that, although the show is now complete, she intends to continue with the research and add new material to it as it evolves.

There are five performers – two women and three men – and the whole piece is sung a cappella. “All of us are singing words that come from several different correspondents,” says Chadwick. “One of the songs is about risking your life and another has words that came from an American correspondent who spoke about wanting to make a difference and make the world a better place.” Other songs speak of the adrenalin rush experienced by those working in a war zone and another looks at the stress that war correspondents have to operate under.

The central plot focuses on an Italian woman who was taken hostage in Iraq but otherwise no individual stories are depicted – it is more fluid, using the observations that the interviewees shared with the creative team. “There are threads and themes that each person performs,” says Chadwick. “It is as though everybody is working on different wars at the same time. It could be in Sarajevo or Cairo or anywhere where people are trying to send reports.”

Chadwick created the songs after listening to all the interviews and selecting particularly powerful passages to become lyrics. “I would link some of the themes from different people and then improvise some tunes on the piano,” she says. “Then I thought I would make it in symphonic form – so it has four movements. After that I tried to think about balancing the show in terms of the performers and the type of songs.”

In addition to the songs, the other voices the audience will hear are spoken words of the actual correspondents. There is a piece by a Chilean poet giving instructions to his loved ones of what they should do if he dies in one of the dangerous situations he finds himself in and another by a Yemeni writer who has probably experienced torture.

“Another is a Guardian correspondent in Egypt who talks about the difference between being a Western correspondent and a local journalist,” says Chadwick. “With a Western passport you can get out if necessary but for local correspondents it is much more dangerous. We have seen recently in Syria how journalists are actually being targeted.”

There are also lighter parts in the production, as one of the recurring themes in the interviews was that black humour was very much a part of the journalists’ way of coping with the daily dangers of their work. When the play premiered in Birmingham last weekend one of the people Chadwick had interviewed was in the audience. “I was a bit nervous, but he thought it was great,” she says. “I was pleased because my original idea was always to pay tribute to war correspondents – we are showing what it is like for them.”