We had a short break in York a couple of weeks ago while en-route to a family wedding in the North East. Checking out what was on at the local theatre beforehand, we spotted an advert for a production that was due to start on our second, and final, night in the city. Blood and Chocolate was a play set in the city during the First World War, inspired by the true story of how the Lord Mayor of York arranged for a chocolate tin, designed and made at the Rowntree’s factory, to every soldier from York who fought at the front. A little ironic as the city’s chocolate making firms, including the Rowntrees, were established and run by Quakers
A collaboration between the Pilot Theatre, Slung Low and York Theatre Royal companies it was a “a promenade performance around York”. There was a a cast of over 200 involved – mostly local amateurs. Intrigued, we decided we’d go along so bought a ticket for the first night performance on our first afternoon. Just as well we did – by the next afternoon all the tickets for the whole run had sold out.
After a fine morning, in the late afternoon it started to pour down with rain. We thought we were probably going to get drenched, but, luckily, the rain stopped and held off during the performance.
We weren’t sure what to expect when we turned up at 7 o’clock outside the City Art Gallery. We queued up to be presented with a set of headphones, a radio receiver and a small tin, a replica of that sent out to the soldiers, containing a couple of locally made chocolates.
We hung around for a while then the performance started with a video of a dance projected onto the front of the De Grey Rooms building facade interspersed with speeches by actors playing various characters. We could hear the dialogue through our headphones but other people passing through the streets (they weren’t cordoned off) must have wondered what was going on.
Then a troop of soldiers rushed out of the small park to our right and shortly afterwards we were participants in a jingoistic parade following a brass band and guided by a crowd of locals dressed along the streets all decked out with bunting towards the Minster. Now I’m one of those who believe that the First World War was a senseless imperialist struggle, but parading through the streets it was easy to see how people at the time got all wrapped up in the jingoism and allowed common sense to go out of the window.
Picture source the Guardian
Arriving at the Minster we watched several more scenes before setting out again. This time we ended up at the Mansion House
And we gradually worked our way around the city centre
At one point we were shepherded inside All saints Church on Ousegate where we were given a welcome cup of hot chocolate before sitting down to listen to a choir and then more actors
Finally we were paraded through the streets down to the green in front of Cliffords Tower for the finale.
Although everything generally went surprisingly well, there were some problems when scenes played out at ground level were difficult to see due to the mass of bodies, especially as there was a large element of “everyone for themselves” selfish behaviour with tall people forcing their way to the front and people generally pushing and shoving into any gap that appeared during the promenade which meant we kept getting separated. And there was one gentleman who insisted on talking loudly – we moved to get away from him at the beginning of the performance as we couldn’t hear what the actors were saying because of him. He also had to be “shushed” by other participants while in the church. These problems could have been solved to some extent if all the scenes had been performed above ground level and if the many volunteer stewards had been more firm with Mr noisy.
I thought the play itself was rather superficial. Inevitable I guess with a production of this nature. They tried to get across the different aspects of the war – the initial jingoism, the lives of the troops at the front and the women left behind – who had to take on work and roles previously reserved for men. The pacifism of the Quakers and the persecution of conscientious objectors was touched on but I thought this wasn’t portrayed particularly sympathetically. And the aftermath of the war – the grief of those who lost loved ones, how the troops didn’t exactly return to a “land fit for heroes” and how women had to revert to their previous roles – was touched on but like other aspects of the story couldn’t be explored in any depth.
Nevertheless, it was a great experience and I’m glad we decided to attend. I’d recommend it – except you probably won’t be able to get you hands on a ticket!