From his seat halfway back at Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way, Alan Bryce watches as part of his family history plays out on the stage. Two Scottish brothers, about to head off to fight in the trenches of World War I, link arms and exchange cufflinks, promising to swap them back when the war is over.
Of course, you can guess they’ll probably never see each other again — which is exactly how it turned out for Bryce’s father and uncle, who inspired the Centerstage director’s new musical opening Friday (May 1). But “For All That” goes beyond Bryce’s Scottish heritage and family story, into a somber meditation on warfare, ultimately leaving viewers to make up their own minds.
“What Gallipoli is to the ANZACs, what the Holocaust is to the Jews, that’s what the Battle of the Somme is to Brits,” says Bryce. “It stands for wasted lives. … What I’ve tried to do (in “For All That”) is, whether you’re liberal or a right-wing patriot, you’ll feel your case (about war) has been articulated. Then you must draw your own conclusions.”
In Bryce’s musical, written last summer after extensive research in Britain, the case for and against war is made primarily by two brothers who are called from their Scottish farm to fight in France in 1916. Donald is quick to sign up; while Andrew follows the thinking he’s done at Edinburgh University and refuses, eventually going to prison as a conscientious objector. The plot is complicated by Mairi, who first loved Andrew but ends up marrying Donald right before he’s drafted; and by Mairi’s brother Malcolm, who has his gentle nature shell-shocked out of him by the killing he’s forced to do.
Onstage, Bryce doesn’t shy away from the violence of war. On the Monday of tech week, Randall Carpenter (Malcolm) and Jamie Pederson (a German soldier) are rehearsing the scene in which Malcolm kills the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. With lights a dim, bloody red, London director Eleanor Rhode calls for complete silence in the small theater — this time through, the vintage Mauser rifle will have a real blank in the chamber. Rushing downstage in flight, Carpenter vaults over the edge and hides right at the foot of the first audience row (which will be taped off for shows). The boarded stage ends in rough branches and corrugated metal resembling a trench; a handful of flowers poke up. As Pederson stalks downstage swinging his gun, the steep raking puts the audience themselves in the trench with Malcolm, shivering. Finally, Carpenter and Pederson step their way through the fight, grappling for the gun as it goes off over their heads and writhing in tense anguish through the killing.
“Wow,” says Carpenter, as Rhode applauds. “That felt like the real thing.”
For Bryce, it almost is the real thing. Raised in London, the director of Scottish descent had always heard about his uncle who’d gone to fight in World War II and never come back. He and Bryce’s father, who also served, had exchanged cufflinks before they left; and many years later Bryce’s father traveled to Greece to find the place where his brother had been shot down. Astonishingly, he walked into a plowed field to find the cufflink glittering in the dark earth.
“So we put that in the play,” Bryce explains.
The play itself is set on the Scottish island of Lewis, where Bryce later married, and he draws heavily on Scottish folk songs and customs, with composer John Forster adding contemporary instrumentation and writing extra period-style songs as needed. There are even songs in Gaelic, including a traditional “mouth-song” (nonsense syllables sung fast and rhythmically to help with manual work), and Robert Burns’ famous “A Man’s a Man For a’ That,” which inspired the title.
“It’s not actually a traditional musical in any way,” Forster explains. “People don’t sing by convention or just burst into song. They only sing when you would in real life.”
But the last personal connection for Bryce is the reason why he wrote a WWI drama in the first place: a profound awareness of the sacrifice given by those who’d gone before.
“I went to a high school that in 1928 built a memorial to all the boys who died in World War I,” he says. “On the wall were the names of 800 boys. I walked past it every day, and it was always on my mind that for an accident of birth I could have faced the same challenges they did.”
But while Bryce confronts the violent reality of war onstage — the “creeping artillery barrages” that saw infantrymen like Donald killed in waves, such as July 1, 1916, when more Allied soldiers were killed than America would lose in five years of the Vietnam War — there’s more to “For All That” than just guns and shooting. As Donald forges a bond with a German soldier he rediscovers his own brother in a new way.
“I wondered, at first, whether in this era of ISIS and Boko Haram it was just naïve to be writing about universal brotherhood,” Bryce says. “But John (Forster) told me that now, of all times, we should be talking about it.”
“I don’t want the play to be a polemical thing,” he adds. “I want people to go away thinking about it.”