Published: 16/10/2014 16:04 - Updated: 17/10/2014 10:46

Alex got entrenched in research for his World War I show

Alex Gwyther
Alex Gwyther

IF someone told him he had fought in World War I in a past life, writer and performer Alex Gwyther would not be too surprised.

He has always felt a connection with the First World War, one that inspired his one-man play Our Friends, The Enemy, the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 where Allied and German troops put aside their hostility for the season of goodwill.

"Many people see the Christmas Truce as a single incident where they played football, but after researching the truce, the events surrounding it go far deeper than a football match and there are so many other things which happened over the course of those days," Gwyther said.

Studying books, letters, diary entries, documentaries and films about the truce, Gwyther uncovered many more fascinating stories

"One which particularly caught my attention was that of German and Allied soldiers chasing a hare for their Christmas dinner, which I found hilarious," he said.

"Other tales were of the soldiers having bicycle races, an Allied soldier getting a haircut in No Man’s Land by his old barber and a spontaneous comedy show in which soldiers dressed up in women’s clothes stolen from an abandoned barn.

"Another story was of a very drunk German soldier wanting to continue the truce and he wandered over to the Allied trench. He was escorted back to his trench by two British soldiers.

"Many people forget about the aftermath. Many of the soldiers didn’t want to fight because they had warmed to their enemy and realised that neither side particularly wanted to be there."

Gwyther did not just confine his research to books.

Admitting that he had begun to feel like a bit of a fraud, dressing up as First World War soldier, he arranged to spend the night in the recreation of a Western Front trench built at a farm in Surrey.

"It was a ‘trench experience’ where I did stand-to as night approached, crawled out and dug a hole in the listening post and at one point I was even gassed," he explained.

"I didn’t get an awful lot of sleep, but used the time to delve into the character of James Boyce and soak up as much of it as possible."

The centenary of the outbreak of the conflict has resulted in much material being written and broadcast on the subject of World War I in recent months, but even 100 years on, Gwyther still believes it is extremely important to remember.

Not just as a commemoration of the events and the people who fought in them, but as a warning of the dangers of political propaganda and a reflection of the horrors of conflict.

"The important thing is how it is delivered or handled," he added.

"Yes we know lots of people died, yes we know the trenches were horrible. What other light can we shine on this?

"It’s also important not to romanticise the war too much. It was something that I was very conscious about when writing as there were some stories of where the truce didn’t happen and fighting continued."

Gwyther has performed the play to theatre audiences, schools, young footballers at The Premier League and serving armed forces personnel and what makes each performance special is speaking to audience members afterward.

"I met one lady in Edinburgh whose uncle fought in the war at 18 and was in the Christmas truce," Gwyther said.

"She told me how he was nicknamed Lucky Ozzy as anyone who went over the top with him seemed to survive. She became quite emotional about it all and so did I. Having interaction like that is something which makes this production very special to me."

Formerly a performance poet, Our Friends, The Enemy is Gwyther’s first play and he is now focusing his energy on writing and performing for the theatre, although he also hopes to continue writing poetry.

"I am currently writing two plays, but only one of these I will be performing in," he said.

"I’ve always performed my own work, so I’m really excited about handing my work over to a director and watching someone else bring it to life.

"I am also currently in the process of turning the play into a novel for teenagers, which delves deeper into the events of the truce. I would like to return to the subject of the war. There are still so many stories to capture from it."

Our Friends, The Enemy, written and performed by Alex Gwyther, is at the OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, on Sunday 19th October.

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