Blood + Chocolate is York’s reaction to the First World War: the call up, women’s work in the local chocolate factories, and Quaker conscientious objectors. It’s a big canvas combining clashing ingredients – the sweetness of love and the pain of death – giving the well-known WW1 tropes a particular York/Yorkshire flavour. In 1914 a bar of Rowntree’s chocolate was sent to every York man serving at the front, making a physical connection which is exploited charmingly in the action when the metal tin that wrapped it stops one soldier’s otherwise fatal bullet.
This is outstanding large-scale producing, involving many from the team who so successfully mounted York’s 2012 mysteries, managing large numbers in audience and cast, delivering top quality sound and production values, creating unique mass effects in real locations, and involving 180 professional and community cast. Big stuff.
Kenny and Lane make full use of the ancient city’s palimpsest of representation – chocolate-box tourist heritage alongside more recent buildings – to depict the end of ‘the age of obedience’ at the start of the twentieth century when automatic duty, ‘it’s what you did’, died. A series of acted and projected vignettes culminate in an Olympics 2012-like finale with nurses and soldiers choreographed into Son et Lumière spectacle of what changed forever after 1918. Cynical-me, divining in the choice of subject a series of funding-applications clustered around the impending WW1 anniversary celebrations, was silenced by the sight of Clifford’s Tower illuminated against a black October sky, and a human messianic figure about to be sacrificed. It is good to revisit the familiar, and to remember to remember.
However – too often in the course of this theatrical experience, the potency of image and message was diluted by the length and the didacticism of some of its telling, and sometimes the staccato of the vignettes is so short as to question their viability. Being shepherded from viewing-spot to point-of-interest I felt the age of obedience was far from dispelled, and I was becoming another heritage-tourist needing to be told what to think about what I was seeing/hearing. Were we supposed to heckle Haig and Baden-Powell? Should we have hooted ironically when told it would be over by Christmas? If so, we failed.
The headphones that let us eavesdrop on parting sweethearts’ conversations, are also the ear-squashing accessories of audio-guided exhibitions, forcing our conclusions and isolating us from the rest of the crowd, while (albeit very efficient and good-humoured) volunteers point the only way.
Good sections involved us with the young soldiers marching down the Shambles, cheered on by community cast and random passing revellers. But there are moments when I longed to slip away from the crush as I do from any guided tour. To get hundreds of audience through such an ambitious schedule, dragooning may be the only way, but if the point is to absorb us in individual dramas and passions, give me a theatre any day.
What works magnificently in this method are the large set-pieces where tableaux vivants or special-effects allow the drama to breathe: the savagery of the fighting line created inside a gutted lorry on Parliament Street, or a gang pillorying a conscientious objector. The intimate scenes go at such a lick, and we with them, they become schematic. We engage with characters as symbols – the programme lists them as simply ‘father’, ‘middle class woman’ – rather than individuals.
Mother (Howard), has more complexity. Her closing speech is stark. Her sons lost to war or madness, she describes the banality of the sacrifice, and mourns the loss of duty; ‘a lovely beautiful delicate thing and they spoilt it, like milk, like blood. I miss it.’
‘Blood + Chocolate’ combines sweet and sour, but doesn’t quite reconcile these ingredients. Massive and intimate, this novel presentation delivers few new insights but as a spectacle, and a step forward for large-scale community theatre, it is a beacon in the dark.
* Pilot theatre company will be live streaming the performance on Thu 17 Oct at www.pilot-theatre.com