Charlie Ward (presumably a pun on Charley’s War, the famous 1979 comic strip centred on an underage soldier) was first staged in 2014, to commemorate the centenary of WWI. A makeshift hospital tent, as they might have been mid-War, toured the country. It contained beds for an audience of 10 people, who could go in, lie down, and experience Sound&Fury’s stirring sound installation. Now during lockdown, Sound&Fury are offering us Charlie Ward at Home, the chance to experience the installation at home. We’re advised to project it onto a wall or ceiling if we can, but if not, a laptop will do. The instructions specifically state you must get into bed, so I happily hop in and press play.
I didn’t know this before Charlie Ward, but soldiers in hospital were often kept entertained by Charlie Chaplin films. Charlie Ward shows Chaplin’s 1915 silent film By The Sea, intercut by blackouts which explore the memories and trauma of seriously injured soldier Harry, who was fighting on the front. The piece begins completely black, with barely distinguishable white noise; trolley wheels turn and footprints climb an echoey stairwell. The film begins. Charlie is messing about, eating a banana and slipping on the skin. We hear eerie faint laughter from either side of us as Charlie and a co-star comically scrap on the beach front.
I’m not sure if the lockdown is getting to me but all of a sudden, I feel deeply sad. I think about all the boys who might’ve been on these wards just over a century ago with holes shot through them, physically and emotionally changed forever, and a lump comes to my throat. This is only worsened when we hear a voice, presumably Harry’s mother, talking to him. It seems that they too, like Charlie Chaplin, are at the seaside. We then find ourselves in what sounds like a bristling field, and the same gentle female voice admires a red admiral butterfly.
Memories like this are interspersed between clips of By The Sea, but sadly not all of them are so calming and warm. Hushed German voices are punctuated by gunfire which transitions into visiting a firework display with his father, and letters written to him on the front line are read by a soft-spoken woman. The mention of a little boy, who longs to be a Soldier and marches around with a broom every morning, is a startling reminder that in a few decades he might very well get that chance as WWII breaks out, and that what was dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’ sadly wasn’t.
Sound designer Dan Jones and Videographer Jon Davey have created a genuinely moving experience, that is as immersive as you make it when streaming at home. Over a century later, it’s both nice and important to remember the sacrifice so many made in such an active way. Charlie Ward at Home remembers them in an entirely different way than a statue or a memorial does – it puts us, as best it can, in their shoes.
Charlie Ward at Home is currently streaming online. For more information, visit the Sound&Fury website.