Heroes

Gerald Sybleyras, translated from the French by Tom Stoppard
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and touring
(2006)

Publicity image

We all have our dreams, and the hope that one day those dreams will be fulfilled, but for the three veterans of the First World War, here soaking up the early autumn sunshine on the terrace of a French Military Hospital there is little hope of fulfilment. They spend their days discussing those in charge (particularly a fierce and frightening nun, Sister Madeleine) and the other inmates, and they are very protective of ‘their’ view, with wild ideas of defending their territory if others encroach. If they look further than the cemetery which allegorically is straight in front of them they can see a row of poplars with the breeze swaying their branches, a symbol of flight and freedom. There is no breeze on their terrace – nothing to disturb the tranquillity, or the boredom.

Flight and freedom is what Gustav suggests. Why don’t they break out and escape from their ‘prison’? Brusque, acerbic, and determined to be the leader, he invents wild and impossible plans for this adventure although he is afraid to go outside and face the world. Unreasonably he insists on also taking the stone statue of a dog which seems to have become one of the cast. They even acknowledge it in their curtain calls.

Lame Henri is the only one who manages to get beyond the boundary walls and comes back delighted with the news of something he has found in the next village – a girls’ school! No, he is not a pervert, simply an old man who enjoys the sight of a pretty young girl, and just nods to her in passing.

Philippe’s legacy of the war is shrapnel embedded in his head, leading to sudden blackouts from which he recovers with the shout “Take them from behind, Captain!” – not at all the rallying war cry the others supposed when ‘Captain’ turns out to be a dressmaker, and very inconvenient when he attends a funeral and falls into the grave.

Three splendid actors, veterans themselves, take us through pathos, humour, and longing, drawing the characters expertly and with real feeling. Michael Jayston’s Henri is sane and sensible, resigned to his long years in hospital and preferring a picnic outing to the idea of escaping to Indo-China. Christopher Timothy is Gustave, an upright military man relishing reliving his wartime experiences in his mind and always confrontational, while Ark Malik’s Philippe, in spite of the blackouts, is reasonable and conciliatory acting as a buffer to keep the peace between the others.

Set in 1959, two years before the author was born, the original title was Les Vents des Peupliers (The Wind in the Poplars) and, translated by Stoppard, it opened at Wyndham’s Theatre last year to enormous critical acclaim and won awards for young director Thea Sharrock. Here Claire Lovett deserves equal acclaim for a ninety minute production sympathetically and atmospherically staged, with intricately detailed set by Robert Jones and lighting by James Whiteside, and with a poignant closing scene of great beauty and wistfulness as they watch geese in their flight over the poplars.

Touring to Malvern, Aberdeen, Norwich, Edinburgh, Milton Keynes and Glasgow.

This review was first published in Theatreworld Internet Magazine.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor