A small audience gathered in Shaftesbury Library on Saturday morning to watch scenes from the Arts Centre’s autumn play, adapted from the first world war-set novel, ‘Private Peaceful’. Alfred saw how one of our town’s talented young actors has tackled a demanding lead role.
Former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo, the author of ‘War Horse’, based ‘Private Peaceful’ on factual accounts. During the Great War, nearly 300 British soldiers were executed for desertion and cowardice. Many of the men were punished for their actions when shell-shocked.
The lead character in the play is 18-year-old soldier ‘Tommo’ Peaceful. He looks back on his short life as he awaits his fate. This poignant role has been a test of Peter Rawlinson’s acting skills. The 14-year old Shaftesbury School student is new to acting and has clearly taken this big role in his stride.
Peter responded to an advert for youth theatre recruits back in February and played Sherlock in the light-hearted first youth production of ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Emerald of Alcazar’ in June. “I had to learn to smoke a pipe then and now I have to shoot a gun,” said Peter.
This production has a very different mood. “It’s definitely a lot harder. The atmosphere we have to portray through our characters is different. And I’m finding it a bit challenging,” he said. But Peter has found his fellow actors supportive. “I have friends in the cast who have helped me and told me how to act.”
His character, Tommy, who went to fight in France with a sibling, faces the firing squad for reasons that are hard to comprehend today. “He was trying to save his brother. If he had left him, his brother would have died. He stayed with him and comforted him, in exchange for his own life.”
Peter was stunned to learn how severe the punishment was. “I had no idea that something very small can cost someone’s life and they only had an hour for a trial. It was horrible,” he said. Although we live in very different times, Peter has tried to understand the mindset of a soldier. He spoke to his brother Tom, who serves in the Scots Guards, whilst researching the role. “I’m just trying to be him. What would my brother do?” is the question Peter has asked himself.
The young actor has read Morpurgo’s book, but he has also found useful resources which have offered him a greater understanding of Great War events. “Google and movies. Peter Jackson filmed a documentary of World War One and colourised it, which I thought was incredible. It almost put me in their shoes and showed me how they acted,” said Peter.
He says the Arts Centre show is worth seeing for the story, its interpretation and the staging. “The sound effects, the lighting and the set are absolutely fantastic. I feel like I’m actually there. They’ve done it really well. Behind us we’ve got a trench wall,” he said.
The narrator, who links the scenes together, uses that space. “I haven’t seen many plays done around World War One. It is very different to ‘Spamalot’ and ‘Sherlock’. It’s rather unique,” said Peter.
Peter has enjoyed his acting journey so far. “My confidence has grown a lot in drama and what I do here,” said Peter, although he’s still not sure whether he wants to act professionally. “I still don’t think I’m good enough. I’m not going to pursue acting, but I’m doing it for GCSE. I will see what I do after that.”
The library on a Saturday morning wasn’t the ideal venue for such a moving production as children played and chatted at the other end of the room. But one audience member was particularly transfixed by the lead man’s powerful performance – Peter’s dad, Michael Rawlinson. “I’ve seen a few of the rehearsals. They’ve been working really hard as a group. The director has been leading them but it’s exciting to see them in costume. I am very proud of him. We’ve worked together learning lines. He’s just terrific,” Michael beamed.
Peter continues to doubt whether he’s good enough to act for a living, as he did when we chatted during the ‘Sherlock’ rehearsals. But with his rapid progression over eight months, many spectators may consider this local lad to have a bright future should he choose to pursue acting. “Just be in the moment, live for this production and see what happens,” Peter’s dad advised.
Private Peaceful is performed at 7.30pm each day between 16th and 19th October inclusive at Shaftesbury Arts Centre.