| Les Murs Sont Témoins | These Walls Bear Witness |
Elaine Mitchener sound installation at Portchester Castle
Monday 8 July 2019 marks the opening of | Les Murs Sont Témoins | These Walls Bear Witness | a temporary sound installation created by London-born musician Elaine Mitchener, commissioned by the University of Warwick in partnership with English Heritage. This work recounts the castle’s story as a building of incarceration, creativity, and freedom, retelling how the stories of the black revolutionaries from the Caribbean intertwined with those from mainland France. It runs until the end of November.
Portchester Castle in Hampshire held thousands of French prisoners of war during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic campaigns. The lives and experiences of these remarkable soldiers and their families are the inspiration for the soundscape. The original concept behind the sound installation was a discussion between Abigail Coppins, joint project historian of the permanent exhibition on the black prisoners of war on the upper floors of the keep (opened 2017) and Professor Kate Astbury whose research informed the recreation of the Napoleonic prisoner-of-war theatre on the ground floor. We wanted to find a way to link the two parts of the keep together, the Revolutionary Caribbean prisoners from the 1790s, and the predominantly Parisian theatre troupe whose theatre was downstairs 1810-1814.
The connection we used as a starting point is a prisoner-of-war play from 1807, Le Philantrope révolutionnaire ou L’Hécatombe d’Haïti (The Revolutionary philanthropist) about the Saint-Domingue slave revolt. It puts on stage fictional black revolutionaries whose experiences mirror those of the real revolutionaries held at Portchester a decade earlier. The play was first performed on board one of the prison hulks in the bay but was copied in January 1811, with painted illustrations of set designs, at a time when the Portchester theatre was at its height. We know the Portchester troupe wrote their own plays, and had plays sent to them from Paris and that there were transfers between hulks and the castle so it’s entirely likely that the copy was made to be performed at Portchester (the calendar of performances at the theatre has only survived for the months September 1810- early January 1811 – when captain Paterson, who had encouraged the theatre and allowed British audiences in to watch, was replaced, the records come to an end).
| Les Murs Sont Témoins | These Walls Bear Witness | has been created by London-born artist and musician Elaine Mitchener in partnership with the University of Warwick and English Heritage in response to Portchester’s prisoners of war. She used The Revolutionary Philanthropist, and music from Roseliska, a 3-act melodrama that we know was performed in the ground-floor keep theatre in November 1810, alongside new archival research by both Abigail Coppins and Kate Astbury as the starting point for her sound installation which aims to allow the castle to ‘speak’ directly to visitors.
Excerpts of personal letters written by or about the prisoners, registers of names and these two plays written and performed by the prisoners will be heard coming out of the walls, creating an atmospheric soundscape throughout the main castle keep. Recorded by Elaine Mitchener and a team of international contributors, the audio content is based on extensive research by Abigail Coppins and Katherine Astbury, Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick. Drawing on this wealth of historic texts, the installation explores issues of race, gender, warfare and incarceration in Britain, France and the Caribbean between 1789 and 1815 and makes much of the natural drama of the prisoners’ lives.
Katherine Astbury, Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick, comments: “It’s been an honour and a privilege to work with such an acclaimed sound artist as Elaine Mitchener to bring the stories of the French at Portchester to life. At the heart of these stories lie fundamental questions about human rights, discrimination, identity and the power of culture to overcome national differences. The lives of the black prisoners in particular allow us to move beyond traditional narratives of the enslaved as victims to celebrating black agency. The installation touches on issues as much of relevance today as back then.”
Artist Elaine Mitchener said: “It has been an exciting and illuminating process researching and creating | Les Murs Sont Témoins | These Walls Bear Witness | for Portchester Castle. I am grateful to University of Warwick who commissioned me, with support from English Heritage. Special thanks to those free French men, women and children from the Caribbean whose incredible lives and sacrifices were the source of inspiration and whose spirit can still be felt within these walls. Inspired by the space, its fascinating history, I wanted to create a piece which shows that under the most challenging circumstances humankind has the ability to maintain their humanity in creative ways. This exhibition attempts to draw visitors into the physical space and through sound engage with it in a focussed and intimate way.
Dominque Bouchard, English Heritage’s Head of Learning and Interpretation, said: “This is a hugely emotive and immersive installation, which brings Portchester’s history uniquely to life for our visitors. In some places the sounds are like whispers, in others it is less subtle. We know that when the castle was used to house prisoner of war from France and the Caribbean the spaces were incredibly crowded – it would have been a sensory overload, the new soundscape reflects this in a striking and sensitive way.”
The University of Warwick which supports researchers to work with artists through its HEIF impact fund.
University of Warwick's GRP connecting cultures fund
Speakers: Stella Lucien, Serge Saint Rose, Sara le Turq and Pierre Palluet
Music from Roseliska arranged by Diane Tisdall, with thanks to the students and staff on the Tonmeister course at the Institute of Sound Recording, University of Surrey for their invaluable contribution.
Rigging: Harry Bishop (HPA) and his team
Ben Marc Studios for the recording and editing
The Bancroft Library, University of Berkeley where the manuscript of the prisoners' play Le Philantrope révolutionnaire is housed.
The Victoria & Albert theatre collection where the manuscript of the prisoners' play Roseliska is preserved.
The National Archives where the Entry registers for the prisoners and letters about their transfer from the Caribbean are held.
The Archives départementales de la Charente Maritime, La Rochelle which has letters from and about some of the women held at Portchester after their release.
Elaine Mitchener is an experimental and contemporary music vocalist, movement artist and composer whose work encompasses improvisation, contemporary music theatre and performance art. Recent performances and forthcoming projects include b r e a d t h b r e a t h (LCMF, 2018), the then + the now = now time (Maerzmusik, Berlin, 2019), Jeanne Lee Project (Kings Place, London, June 2019), | Les Murs Sont Témoins | These Walls Bear Witness |(Portchester Castle) and Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde (Meteo Festival, Mulhouse, August 2019). www.elainemitchener.com
Katherine Astbury is Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick. She has been working with English Heritage since 2014 to deepen visitor understanding of the French prisoner-of-war theatre in the castle keep. Between October 2013 and July 2017 she ran two AHRC-funded projects on French Theatre of the Napoleonic Era and on Staging Napoleonic Theatre which included staging a 3-act melodrama that the Napoleonic prisoners wrote while incarcerated at Portchester castle.
Abigail Coppins is an experienced freelance curator. She was joint project historian for English Heritage for the 2017 permanent exhibition at Portchester Castle which told the story of the thousands of black men, women and children held there as prisoners of war during the Revolutionary wars. In 2018 her work on the exhibition was recognised with a UK Heritage Award for exemplary research.
To find out more about visiting Portchester Castle, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/portchester
Spartacus, leader of the freedom fighters in the prisoner-of-war play Le Philantrope révolutionnaire (1807) about the Saint Domingue slave revolt. The manuscript of the play text and illustrations of set design for each act are in the Bancroft Library, University of Berkeley.