Verity Standen’s Refrain

Photo Credit: Paul Blakemore

A twelfth century Norman stronghold may seem an unlikely site for pacifist resistance. Yet in both world wars, conscientious objectors imprisoned at Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire left their mark, engraving the walls of their cells with pacifist graffiti.

Their spirit of defiance underscores Refrain, an immersive choral experience devised by composer and artist Verity Standen. Staged across three very different historical sites in Richmond, St Helens and Newhaven, it is a provocative, moving work that explores conflicting narratives of conscientious objection using a cast of untrained male singers drawn from each locality.

“There’s a really interesting question which is what would a contemporary memorial look like?” explains Claire Doherty, Director of Situations, the organisation which commissioned the piece. “The monuments that exist tend to be peace gardens. We wanted something that would bring all the conflicted opinions and political positions to life.”

Situations specialises in site-specific public artwork and, since 2002, it has been exploring the civic role of art and artists, often in connection with some unlikely partners. “Mention English Heritage and most people visualise medieval jousting and battle re-enactments,” says Doherty.

She asked them if they had any sites with a history of pacifist resistance and they put her in touch with Kevin Booth, their Senior Curator in the North.

In turn Booth introduced her to the so-called Richmond Sixteen, a group of conscientious objectors imprisoned in the 19th century cell block of Richmond Castle whose memorial is the scrawled testimonies and drawings they left behind.

“Some were objecting for religious reasons, some for social or political reasons. It wasn’t a blanket objection and Verity wanted to bring that out.”

Taking up the story, Standen is remarkably chipper in spite of the dawn start: “As a composer I don’t normally work with any narrative as such. This was the first time I was tackling a specific part of history.”

Equipped with a reading list from Booth, she visited Richmond Castle for its incongruously impressive acoustics and to view the cells for herself — “a magical experience.”

Her preference when composing is to utilise untrained singers — “ it frees up the voice” — which meant she had just ten weeks to bring the whole thing together. Her choir of male singers was mostly recruited from the local community three months ago and included a scrap metal dealer, a doctor and an Iranian asylum seeker.

The composer was insistent that individual histories percolated through the work. “You can tell a piece of music where somebody is dead within it, just singing what they been told to sing,” she says. “It has to be about their voices, about them bringing themselves into that.”

The piece represents a coming-together, a haunting of sorts that feels suited to the rugged theatrical confines of the castle grounds. “Richmond Castle is overlaid with all different kinds of histories,” Doherty tells me. “It’s about bringing it right up to date with living, breathing male singers with their own lives.”

In performance, a figure nestles inside the castle nook and sings a traditional Iranian folk tune, his voice plaintive and resonant. His refrain is taken up by a baritone somewhere high up on the battlements, while a choir congregates on the central knoll. Their shifting lament suffuses the bright early morning chill.

At the climax, men congregate inside the tower room with its vaulted wooden ceiling and unexpectedly sonorous acoustic. Voices are roused in momentary unison coupled with the symbolic beating of their breasts like some Socialist synod. “There is a sense of something coming out,” says Doherty.

Freed to wander the site, the audience is integral to the performance’s success. After all, Refrain was conceived as an immersive encounter, intentionally open to question — at times it is intimate, meditative, even discomfiting.

“Verity wanted very much that idea of the audience coming in, beginning to hear something in the distance and then for it to become quite an intense moment,” explains Doherty.

“One of the things we try do with our work is break down some of those barriers. For a lot of people here today this might be the first contemporary piece of music that they’ve come across, so it’s about encouraging them.”

When Refrain relocates to St Helens in May and Newhaven in June, the process will begin anew. With a fresh cast, each with their own stories to tell, in each locale the piece is transmutable. In St Helens, the urban setting includes a pub and Masonic Lodge, while in Newhaven, the site is next to the sea and consists of a series of underground tunnels.

Plans to make a film across all three sites are not firmly fixed, says Doherty. In part this is due to the nature of the performance itself. “We can’t help but feel the men, the presence of being here and moving amongst them is so important. The film would be a very different thing.”

In fact, a film of sorts is being created, a unique edit in the mind of every visitor to Refrain, one that is determined by time of day — some performances take place at dawn — an individual’s chosen route around each site and personal engagement with the ensemble.

Just as the graffiti inscribes the cell walls at Richmond Castle, the marks made by Refrain will be there for years to come.

Verity Standen, REFRAIN is performed 19–21 May, in collaboration with Heart of Glass, St. Helens, Merseyside and 9–11 June, in collaboration with The Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts Newhaven, East Sussex. For more information, including tickets go to www.refrain.online.

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