New music-theatre piece Shorelines remembers a long-forgotten and deadly tragedy

New music-theatre piece Shorelines remembers a long-forgotten and deadly disaster

credit: Nichon Glerum

Director Josh Armstrong tells us more about the production ahead of its performance at Sonica 2017

It was 1am when Peggy Morgan reached out her hand from under the bed covers, and felt ice cold water rising from the floor beneath. Disorientated in the darkness, she woke her husband and young baby and the trio battled their way outside, clinging to the shed roof as they awaited rescue.

It's a true story that's as fascinating as it is harrowing, and one of many such testimonies that fed into Shorelines, a new music-theatre piece inspired by the North Sea flood of 1953. A tragic event that took place in the early hours of a freezing February night, the flood claimed over 2500 lives in Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Now largely forgotten on this side of the water (for reasons we'll come to in a moment), the North Sea flood remains a prominent event in Dutch history – as director Josh Armstrong discovered when Glasgow's Cryptic teamed up with the Netherlands-based Ragazze Quartet to discuss creative ideas for a show.

'We talked about shorelines, that transitory space between the land and the sea,' says Armstrong, 'which is beautiful but can also be quite catastrophic. And then one of the players said that shorelines make her think about her grandfather, and how he always regretted not being able to save more people on the night of the North Sea flood.

'So I began to research it and found out that the flood affected both the Netherlands and the UK, so it made sense to look at that shared history.'

The resulting piece is extraordinary, with Armstrong's direction bringing this terrible natural disaster back to life with subtlety and pathos, alongside Oliver Coates' beautiful score and the Ragazze Quartet's masterful playing.

When Shorelines premiered in Rotterdam, local people were surprised to discover that Britain had been affected by what the Dutch called 'our flood'. Older people in Britain feel the same way, but in reverse. As for those too young to remember it, there's a reason it's not still talked about today.

New music-theatre piece Shorelines remembers a long-forgotten and deadly tragedy

credit: Nichon Glerum
'I'd never heard of the flood,' says Armstrong, who was born in Ohio but is now based in Glasgow, 'and I know a lot of British people haven't heard of it either. But apparently because 1953 was the year of the Queen's Coronation and the first British climber to scale Mount Everest, the flood didn't fit into the post-war history they were trying to create. And the other reason is a lot of the low-lying regions in Norfolk and Essex which were flooded, were populated by poorer people in prefab housing.'

Which brings us back to Peggy and her flooded home on Canvey Island, Essex. Her vocal testimony closes the piece (bring your tissues), and all the on-stage images that have gone before your eyes over the previous hour start to make perfect sense.

In a stroke of theatrical genius, Armstrong and set and costume designer, Christophe Coppens, came up with the idea of dressing the Ragazze Quartet members in rescue gear with loops and pulleys – and the four women literally drag furniture around the stage as they play. Which may sound clunky, but proves to be an extremely effective, and moving, way to create the kind of domestic chaos which surrounded the homeowners on that terrifying stormy night.

'I think one of the biggest challenges in doing a piece like this,' says Armstrong, 'is how to present the event in such a way that gives a sense of the catastrophe but without making it like a disaster film – which is really the only medium that could even come close to it.

'Because it wasn't just about sea levels rising, it wasn't that people were suddenly peacefully under water, it was a massive storm and it was the 1st of February, so the water was freezing. How do you show that violence – houses literally being smashed into each other? You can't do that onstage. So for me, the best way to approach it was by not showing everything – that way everyone stays in a state of questioning and wondering, and maybe filling the images in yourself.'

The Ragazze Quartet had tackled numerous works of music-theatre before, but even for them, Shorelines was a challenge. Initially, they planned to use sheet music while playing, but once the pulleys were attached during rehearsal it quickly became clear that wasn't possible.

'I could tell it was difficult for them, but they never complained and were very up for doing something new,' says Armstrong. 'Obviously playing an instrument while you're being pulled is difficult – especially when you're trying to play beautifully and not have any kind of ricochet – and they do it so well. And they also had to memorise an hour of music, but we rehearsed it a lot and they definitely rose to the challenge.'

Shorelines, Tramway, Glasgow, Wed 1 & Thu 2 Nov.

Sonica

Cutting edge performance by established international artists, crossing the boundaries of music, theatre, visual and electronic art. It is produced by Cryptic, who are responsible for some of the most fascinating live performance work in the country. Since its launch in 2012, the festival has presented over 400 events by…

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