Gérald Sibleyras, translated by Sir Tom Stoppard
Review by Philip Fisher
The recipe for Heroes might be derived from a collection of classic three-man comedies. Take one part Last of the Summer Wine, one part Three Men in a Boat and two parts Art and mix gently to find this slightly absurdist comedy that occasionally goes over the top into that no-man's land occupied by Beckett.
The English TV comedy is evoked by three dotty old men stuck on an attractive terrace repelling boarders and feebly dreaming of impossible escape. When one is agoraphobic, a second lame and the last prone to collapse as a result of shrapnel in his head, failure is sad but inevitable.
Three Men in a Boat represents more of the same but particularly lazy men dreaming of a trip with their own canine Montmorency, in this case made of stone but possibly capable of movement.
Art played in this same theatre and, over time, contained most of this cast. It was an allegedly light contemporary French comedy with philosophical and Absurd undertones. It also featured three men quietly vying for power and had a mollifier played by Ken Stott in its original cast.
That actually gives a pretty fair overview of this touching and amusing 90-minute play set in 1959, two years before its writer was born. It is set on the delightful sun-dappled, Robert Jones-designed garden terrace of an Old Soldiers Home somewhere in France.
Here, three old lags, veterans of the First World War, enter into verbal duels in language that constantly harks back to long-forgotten military campaigns, while bitching about the nun who runs the place, Sister Madeleine, and the other inmates. They come up with conspiracy theories, tall tales and also the minutiae of their rather mundane lives.
Colour is added by their differing characters. John Hurt plays the pompous Gustave, a man who delights in belittling others and planning campaigns but is scared of leaving the environs of the home. Richard Griffiths is the gargantuan, lisping Henri, "a born enthusiast" perfectly at home after 25 lazy years. Finally Philippe, played by Stott, stands (and falls) between the others, making peace and screaming incomprehensibly, apparently about wartime terrors.
With a cast of this calibre, the acting is inevitably excellent with each cast member having an opportunity to shine alone as well as playing off each other. They are well directed by the Gate's Artistic Director Thea Sharrock, who is especially strong on body language and comic timing.
This English version, written by Sir Tom Stoppard, makes a relatively simple play into something more subtle as slowly, deeper and deeper levels of metaphor emerge. The result is that eventually these three old soldiers in their home come to represent something much greater, as they yearn for what might be called a Great French Dream of peace and freedom.