Dulce et Decorum Est: The Unknown Soldiers
Jan van der Black
Polymorph Theatre with Jan van der Black and Penny Gkritzapi
At the start of a heavy bombing raid on London during the blitz, Ellen, a young American Nurse, invites ageing ex-soldier Tommy to wait out the danger in her bomb shelter. Both have their own perspectives on war, death, suffering and the importance of love and family.
Throughout the length of the bombardment, in a slow and believable fashion, Ellen and Tommy open up to each other about themselves. She teases from him the details of his bitter memories of The Great War and his shame at being the only survivor of his "Pals Brigade". In kind, Ellen waxes lovingly about her own beau, missing in action, after being sent to Crete with the Commandos, each taking some comfort from the hope of the other and in return giving the other some reprieve from their worries.
Jan van der Black, who wrote the piece, also stars as Tommy and gives a marathon performance, from shivering nervousness, as he flinches from the echo of every thunderous bomb landing, to a breakdown, as he works himself into a state of hopeless sadness and emotional release. It's a fine and measured performance, in keeping with his previous work at the Fringe.
Unfortunately, the extremes of his turmoil only go to contrast against the comparatively flat performance from Emily Maybank, who by necessity of the script, remains chipper and more resolute for the majority of the performance. Although in no way a bad performance, it makes the dynamic feel relatively uneven and makes it harder to engage with the character of Ellen, and considering the script bluntly tips its hand rather early to some 11th hour revelations, which makes the build-up to that point feel all the more noticable.
Still, it's a robust experience and a warm and gentle light amidst the usual grimness of the war plays that pepper the Fringe.