Blog: Richard Vergette

The playwright shares his inspiration for Dancing Through the Shadows and asks why Hull’s experience of the war is little told

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I was part of the generation of kids who would ask each other in the playground: “Was your dad in the war?” I knew that mine was but I wasn’t too sure what he had done. It wasn’t something that he talked about. He would refer obliquely to having been “in the desert” and at some point I found out that his brother had been killed. But I never quite knew which battles he had fought or what daring feats he had accomplished.

As a child war was a playground game, a story from The Victor comic and a crap John Wayne movie. I knew that Dad was hospitalised for two years with polio and that he had contracted the virus whilst on active service, and I knew that his brother had been killed whilst serving in the Air Force. Gradually, as childhood merged with adolescence, I grew to understand a little more without knowing any more. It was clear that – like so many others – whatever he had done he was simply never going to talk about it. It was like a mass conspiracy of silence; the ones who had really seen action just didn’t speak of it, the ones who had had a moment of glory in the Home Guard spoke of little else. It’s like the song at the end of Oh What a Lovely War:

‘And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre
We’ll never tell them, no we’ll never tell them,
There was a Front but damned if we knew where.’

As an adult I became aware that, although not spoken of, the war had taken a toll on my father – unquestionably physically but also mentally and emotionally. His sudden loss of temper and his unreasonable behaviour often distorted the fundamentally good person I’m convinced he was. Looking back it’s clear to me now that his behaviour was the consequence of unresolved post traumatic stress disorder. So I was always aware of the shadow that the war had cast over him and, thereby, our family too.

I only knew about the significance of the war in Hull once I started to teach there in 1988. The following year was the 50th anniversary of the start of the war and I devised a little piece of documentary theatre for the kids. The facts were staggering: 90-95 per cent of houses damaged or destroyed, some of them more than once; 1,200 people killed, of whom a third died in the intensive raids across two nights in May 1941. It was the scene of the first daylight and the last piloted air raids. In short, Hull was the most bombed city outside London. And, to be frank, no one really knows about it.

The decision by the BBC not to incorporate Hull into its recent programme Blitz Cities is an example of crass suburban prejudice and a disgusting disregard for the 1,200 souls who perished here. It’s also a slap in the face for the survivors who helped the city to rebuild itself and face the future. In a sense my inspiration for the play is the need to make anger creative, to do something that reclaims the city’s past for itself and says: “You might drop bombs on us, you might ignore us, but you can’t finish us. Despite your best efforts we’re still here.”

Dancing Through the Shadows is a love story set against the ravages Hull endured. The characters are good people who find themselves in a situation way beyond their control and understanding. They face the reality that tomorrow they may not have a home, they may not have a place of work, they may lose their friends, their colleagues, their loved ones; they may not have a tomorrow. Although Hull suffered more than most cities, it’s a story that has never really been told. Dancing Through the Shadows is not an attempt to chronicle the history of the war in Hull, it is a story of two fictional families who try to survive. A lovely young couple meet on the dancefloor in 1938 and love ensues. What follows is their attempt to keep their love alive through the nightmares and the “shadows” and simply to survive.

Having the play produced at Hull Truck Theatre and directed by artistic director Mark Babych is simply wonderful. Hull Truck Theatre has to be one of the most exciting theatres in the country and will be the focus of national and international attention as we move towards Hull City of Culture 2017. I hope the play forms part of that amazing journey and will prove to be a memorable event for those taking part in it, and more particularly for those going to see it.

Dancing Through the Shadows is running at Hull Truck Theatre (01482 323638, from Thursday 1 October until Saturday 24 October

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