Today we were honoured to photograph National Theatre Wales’ specially commissioned event to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Around 100 volunteers led by National Theatre Wales were part of a UK-wide event that took place today, 1 July 2016, as a modern memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, the work was conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre.
The specially commissioned event saw some 1,400 voluntary participants dressed in First World War uniform appear unexpectedly in locations across the UK, including three locations in Wales; Swansea, Aberystwyth and Bangor. National Theatre Wales was one of 25 organisations which collaborated on the work, called ‘we’re here because we’re here’. It was produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the National Theatre, working in close collaboration with partners including: Lyric Theatre Belfast, Manchester Royal Exchange, National Theatre of Scotland, Northern Stage, Playhouse Derry-Londonderry, Salisbury Playhouse, Sheffield Theatres and Theatre Royal Plymouth.
National Theatre Wales collaborated with Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Pontio in Bangor and Volcano in Swansea on the project.
The project breaks new ground in terms of its scale, breadth, reach and the number of partners and participants involved. This is the first time so many theatres have worked together on a UK-wide participation project.
The participants who walked the streets today were a reminder of the 19,240 men who were killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. They travelled on several routes in Swansea (in the city centre, to Sketty in the east and as far as Port Talbot to the west), in Aberystwyth (including to Aberaeron, Borth, around the town centre and up Constitution Hill) and in Bangor (including the pier and parts of Mount Snowdon). Each participant represented an individual soldier who was killed that day. The work is partly inspired by tales of sightings during and after the First World War by people who believed they had seen a dead loved one.
The participants wore historically accurate uniforms, representing 15 of the regiments that suffered losses in the first day of the Battle. The soldiers did not speak, but at points throughout the day would sing the song ‘we’re here because we’re here’, which was sung in the trenches during the First World War. They handed out cards to members of the public with the name and regiment of the soldier they represented, and, where known, the age of the soldier when he died on 1 July 1916.
The daylong work ran from 7am to 7pm and covered the width and breadth of the UK, from Shetland to Penzance. Sites they visited included shopping centres, train stations, beaches, car parks and high streets – taking the memorial to contemporary Britain and bringing an intervention into people’s daily lives where it was least expected.
The volunteers were men aged between 16-52, reflecting the men who would have fought in the Somme. They were not trained actors but come from a range of professions, including a sheep farmer, flight attendant, doctor, lawyer, social worker, shop assistant, portrait artist and GCSE student. They came together to rehearse in theatres and with theatre companies across the UK over a month-long period in the run-up to the performance. ‘we’re here because we’re here’ is one of the largest arts participation projects ever staged in the UK, with hundreds of additional volunteers working behind the scenes.
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