Interview with Cis & Barbiche writer Jenny Davis

filed11 Nov 2014 from Carmen Jenner CategoriesCultural

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Cis and Barbiche cast outside York Royal Theatre UK July 2014

Cis and Barbiche cast York Royal Theatre UK July 2014

Cis and Barbiche is a moving tribute to the humanity of WWII as part of Remembrance Week. Presented by the Perth Theatre Trust and Agelink Theatre and returning from their UK tour, the play is based on the 200 passionate letters received in 1944 by a young Barbara Rigby from her lover French airman Francis. The story is brought to life by director and writer Jenny Davis who was kind enough to share the experience of bringing this poignant tale to the stage.

The name of the show is Cis and Barbiche. Cis is short for Francis but what does Barbiche mean?

Barbiche is the nick-name he gave her which means goatee beard. He was a larrikin and she was a middle class English lady and he always made her laugh, unlike most buttoned-up Englishmen.

Tell me about the letters found?

Now 89, Barbara was originally from Liverpool but has lived in Perth for the past 50 years. The letters are only the ones received from him and Barbara’s diary accounts for some of what she wrote. The original letters were gifted to the Yorkshire Air Museum in the UK and are one of the biggest and most important collections from a French airman. They’re funny, passionate, full of emotional ups and downs, and in the backdrop of danger they’re very telling about the missions. They both loved literature, music and films which they would discuss. The letters are social documents of the time; funny, upbeat and passionate. Barbara has bright blue eyes and he’d call her his Princess with the Starlight Eyes.

Which was your favourite letter?

There is a very moving letter to her when he was venturing out on an early mission and he realises he might not see her again. He tells her he wants her to contact his family. It’s very sad. Another was when he heard his hometown Marseille had been liberated.

How long did they know each other?

They met in 1944, and he flew out not that long afterwards until he went missing when his plane was shot down. He turned up after D-day and she came to France to find him. She was only 19. He was repatriated in 1945 and she stayed with him in rural France Marseille. However, they came from different worlds and they were faced with the age old dilemma of whether their relationship was suitable in the long term.

It must have been wonderful to have had Barbara’s input.

Barbara is bright, formidable and gave lots of input into the script. The letters and diaries are charming and include lots of drama and quarrels set amongst the dangerous backdrop of war. The show includes live music from the period and projected images. Barbara is unsentimental, sensible, pragmatic and she has no kids so this is her legacy and it’s wonderful to have her input. She has been very generous with the material and has a special charm; a guiding light and it’s like she’s also on the stage. I was very careful with the material especially when I had to invent some of the conversations and amalgamate them into the letters. Barbara has been given a new lease of life and has kind of become famous in Kalamunda, where she lives.

Actual photo of Francis Usai and Barbara Rigby  Liverpool, October 25, 1944

Actual photo of Francis Usai and Barbara Rigby Liverpool, October 25, 1944

The play Cis and Barbiche is loosely based on the book The Bright Squadron, which is based on the letters between a French airman in Squadron 346 and his 19 year old girlfriend living in Liverpool.

Cis was in squadron 346, alongside squadron 347 which were based in Elvington, York. The RAAF established the squadrons to fight and prepare the way for D-day. They were bombers and often the girls were too scared to date them because of the risk. Halifax bombers would fly at night and there would be 1000 bombers flying very closely. The planes are tiny and it would have been freezing flying up there for 10 hours at a time. It was very dangerous as some would never return. They were very daring and they had nothing to lose and as a result won many bravery medals.

This is your second work about war. Tell me about Dear Heart.

My uncle was a prisoner of war (POW) in Java where he met his wife, my aunt. Dear Heart is based on the letters my aunt wrote to her husband which he never received. It was published by Allen Unwin in 1995 and sold 10,000 copies and I still receive library royalties. Both my parents were in the RAAF and dinnertime talk was often about the war gone passed. My family have many funny memories and I feel very connected to war but consider myself the lucky generation to have missed out on war.

Do you have a special message about war?

War is different now than what it was back then. Communication is everything and now we have skype, email and daily communication. Back then the letters were handwritten and someone took the time to handwrite and be thoughtful with the words chosen. There’s obviously still fear of course with women waiting at home for news. My aunt spent four years writing letters that were never read but that was her way of unloading. War can be very exciting as you get to meet lots of interesting people, foreigners, it’s kind of glamourous with the uniforms, everyone’s young and it can be terribly romantic. And you have to do your job well. But after the war everything goes grey. Now we know what to expect although it’s a different war.

Tell me about Agelink.

I started it in 1993 after my father passed away. I realised I missed recording his stories and was always interested in oral histories. Once the elderly go into nursing homes they feel like they have nothing to contribute but they should be acknowledged and have the opportunity to tell their stories. You can’t know the future until you understand the past. As you get older, memories become more vivid through the five senses and memories are put down through the senses. Memories nourish the soul. Running for 21 years, Agelink is a non-profit organisation and got its name because it brings generations together. We get no funding so any community support is greatly appreciated.

Cis and Barbiche plays at the Subiaco Arts Centre 11-15 November 2014


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