Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide

Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide

Theatre Reviews : Regeneration and Not About Heroes

20141105-About-Regen-570x320Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Regeneration’, which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 8th November and ‘Not About Heroes’, which is at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn until Wednesday 5th November.  Clywd Theatr Cymru is mounting its own production of ‘Not About Heroes’ which runs until Saturday 29th November. 

Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy has been distilled into two sharp-as-shrapnel hours by Nicholas Wright for A Touring Consortium Theatre Company.

Within the whitewashed walls of Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart Hospital late in World War One, a psychologist is reduced to using all available tactics to coerce sick young soldiers to return to the slaughterhouse. We see brutal scenes in a London hospital where an arrogant doctor practically tortures a mute man back into the trenches. It’s deeply uncomfortable stuff.

Into all this strides the principled poet Siegfried Sassoon (erectly played by Tim Delap) who is being hushed up following his anti-war public outbursts. As a man of letters, he’s handled more subtly; being allowed to write his way back to the front and to generate his own sense of guilt on the golf course. He closely tutors another invalided soldier, Wilfred Owen (an affable Garmon Rhys), in the art of war poetry. When Sassoon is injured a second time, Owen vows to take his place as an embedded poet, sending back truthful accounts of the front line to blinkered Britain.

The play is a vast canvas of ethics and expediency. It’s cold, harsh and fearful… which are exactly the elements the characters struggle with…and it made me care about them desperately. Owen’s ‘futility of war’ could not be plainer, even though we only get flashes of The Front in the men’s nightmares and neuroses. They cling onto what moral codes they can before the war wipes them away. Sassoon’s room mate is more concerned about him being a German Spy than a homosexual, and when the silent Billy Prior finally speaks he confesses he found going over the top sexually arousing.

The humanity of the play is held in the hands of Captain Rivers (played with complete compassion by Stephen Boxer) who broadly shoulders the ambiguity of his task. What’s the point of making the men better if they are just sent off to die?

The poetry plays a surprisingly minor role in ‘Regeneration’ but it is woven into the very fabric of Stephen MacDonald’s 1982 two-handed play ‘Not About Heroes’.

Here, on a set of parchment and sandbags, the focus is purely on Owen and Sassoon and how they cope with, and catalogue, their experiences. They are both compelled to return to the battlefield and driven to write poetry there because no one else dares to discover what it’s really like.

This is a play about a very special friendship. ‘Regeneration’ suggests they are equals but Feelgood Theatre’s ‘Not About Heroes’ offers us a master/pupil relationship.

Alasdair Craig’s Sassoon is a measured authoritarian figure, already in full control of his art and determined to dispel the lies about the glory of war.

Into his study bumbles the hesitant, stammering Simon Jenkins, who bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Wilfred Owen. He’s very much a junior man in the presence of greatness, bobbing humbly around with a nervous wide-eyed smile.

In a beautifully restrained scene, Sassoon tutors Owen in the nuts and bolts of poetry, helping him to unwrap and shape one of his most famous works “Anthem For Doomed Youth”. It’s fascinating academically, and delightful to watch as the two shy men forge their unique bond. This scene appears briefly in ‘Regeneration’ too, but MacDonald pushes it to the front line of his play for all to admire.

Once more we visit Craiglockhart (dubbed ‘Dottyville’ by Sassoon) where Owen’s artistry flourishes as his equilibrium returns – and Sassoon broods about going back to France to complete his task.

The whole play is presented in flashback. Sassoon is in his Wiltshire study in 1932 reliving the last 15 months of the war; so the script is laced with irony. Impressed by Owen’s poetic progress he recalls pronouncing, “Let 1918 be the year of Wilfred Owen” and telling him to take great care of himself in France “for all of us”.

For the audience there is an even greater irony. We know they are doomed to fail. Despite all their poetic protests, Europe will erupt again 20 years later.

These are two excellent, complimentary plays. I was lucky enough to see them both on the same day and came away with a much more profound appreciation of the poetry and pity of World War One.

But the greatest irony of all is that in the current welter of commemorations, both theatre companies report that a war-weary public seems to be staying away.

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