Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Not About Heroes – Unity Theatre – 14/10/2014

“…Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

With the WWI centenary commemorations this year and Remembrance Day fast approaching, what better time to revive Stephen MacDonald’s 1982 drama, based on the poems, letters and other writings of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen?

The story is set almost exclusively in 1917 at Craiglockhart War Hospital, where Sassoon and Owen met and became friends before Owen returned to the front, only to be killed in action almost exactly a week before the signing of the armistice. Sassoon is at first scathing about Owen’s poetry but rapidly becomes deeply affected by the younger man’s skill, and champions his work. It is an awkward friendship that balances itself between Owen’s idolatry of his mentor and Sassoon’s aloof correctness. Sassoon’s violent opposition to Owen’s return to action in France and Owen’s stubborn resolve are both telling and painful.

The formula could easily have become contrived, but the skilful writing draws the extracts together into a cohesive and deeply moving story. Director Caroline Clegg and her two actors pace the piece beautifully. Alasdair Craig is the starched and somewhat stuffy Siegfried Sassoon, in whose performance we catch glimpses of him melting to Owen’s charm. Wilfred Owen is played with affecting candour by Simon Jenkins, who captures the young poet’s insecurity, his bearing and his debilitating stammer in a way that makes the part mesmerising to watch.

A simple set by Lara Booth is surrounded by a semicircle of flats, ominously mirroring overgrown headstones from a war cemetery. Dressed with vintage furniture, sandbags and books, it has all it needs to cocoon the play and never distracts from the hypnotic action. An equally spare score from Ailis Ni Riain underpins the text wth the melancholy strains of a lone cello.

This is a superbly crafted production of a beautiful piece of writing that is both a moving tribute to Sassoon and Owen and a fitting memorial to all those whose lives have been lost or permanently altered by conflict.

Highly recommended.

The current tour from Feelgood Theatre  takes in 17 venues and began at Craiglockhart. Liverpool Unity is its 13th stop where it plays until Saturday 18th October.
It continues to Derby, the Wilfred Owen Memorial at Ors (France) and then Shrewsbury and ends with a four week run at the Trafalgar Studios London.
Further details can be found at:

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall,
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each, slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

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