The Unknown Soldier
Grist to the Mill Productions Ltd
Upstairs at the Western, Leicester
On 26 April 2017
Review by Sally Jack
So, it seems we have Michael Gove to thank for The Unknown Soldier, the Grist to the Mill production currently mid-way through a UK tour after achieving critical success in Edinburgh last year.
During his time as Education Secretary, Gove expressed his opinion that, where World War I is concerned, there was an "unhappy compulsion on the part of some [that is, left-wing academics and media] to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage".
This got Ross Ericson's dander up and inspired him to write this taut response to the war meant to end all wars.
After doing his duty during the fighting, Jack (Ericson) has stayed on post-Armistice to pick up the pieces, literally. He has lost his best pal Tom and is determined to keep a promise to find him and bring him home. During one exercise, Jack takes a chance and gets Tom home in the coffin destined to be buried in Westminster Abbey as The Unknown Soldier.
Addressing the audience as his comrade, Jack recounts their experiences as well as his current grisly task of gathering and identifying (where possible) the fallen, scattered around what were, two years previously, the No Man’s Lands of France and Belgium.
Viewing row upon row of neat, white headstones in military cemeteries is shocking enough, particularly to highlight the scale of slaughter, but what isn’t often pointed out is how the bodies got to their final resting places. Someone had to return to the battlegrounds, retrieve the bodies and give them an honourable burial, constantly reliving the destructive force of the war now the guns are silent.
The originality of this idea is part of The Unknown Soldier’s power, and provides a vivid example of another way in which virtues such as honour and courage can be displayed.
Ericson totally engages and convinces as a soldier just trying to get along, in turn plagued and comforted by ghosts and memories. The intimacy of Upstairs at the Western is the ideal venue for this performance—a simple set of a chair, side table and camp bed and effective use of lighting as we move from night to day, battlefield to rest.
The sound design during the battle scene leaves you in no doubt as to the relentless terror endured by the soldiers as they fought for a cause many had no clear idea about.
Michelle Yim’s direction and pacing of the piece is spot on, the hour-long timing just right. The horror and humour of the soldiers' experience is handled deftly, and Ericson's poetic and sensory touches, together with his skill as a storyteller make for a compelling performance.
It is true there are already many WWI plays and performances, particularly as we commemorate the centenary years, but The Unknown Soldier stands out for its raw and realistic humanity.