Not About Heroes

Stephen MacDonald
Clwyd Theatr Cymru
Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold
to

There could not have been a more appropriate time to see this outstanding production than Armistice Day, the ninety-sixth anniversary of the end of hostilities on the Western Front.

On  a day when, all across the country, people would be attending ceremonies at cenotaphs and memorials, the audience inside the Emlyn Williams Theatre were held spellbound by two exceptional performances from Owain Gwynn as Wilfred Owen and Daniel Llewelyn-Williams as Siefried Sassoon.

Not About Heroes, the title drawn from a phrase used by Owen in the preface to the anticipated publication of his anthology of poems, is set in Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh in 1917 where Sassoon and Owen met as both were convalescing from trauma caused by war, "the scars you cannot see" as Sassoon called it.

Sassoon, already a winner of the Military Cross, had been sent there as an alternative to the Court Martial he hoped would follow his "Soldiers Declaration" in which he savaged the course of the war and caused huge embarrassment to the establishment. Although the narrative moves back and to through the burgeoning friendship between Owen and Sassoon, it is clear that the younger man idolises Sassoon from the outset, bringing copies of his books for signatures.

Though both men are clearly traumatised by their time in the trenches, the physical signs differ. Owain Gwynn presents a nervy yet dutiful Wilfred Owen while Llewelyn-Williams’s Sassoon is combustible and positively crackles with contempt for the war and those who, in his eyes attempt to justify it. However, he soon detects a rare promise in the poetry of Owen and becomes a source of encouragement and influence to the development of probably the finest of our war poets.

The dialogue contains intricately woven exchanges based on letters between the two, and between Owen and his mother, alongside words of their poetry and these two hugely promising young actors bring vivid life to these words.

Mark Bailey’s set design cleverly presents the nightmarish vision of the Western Front, barbed wire and scorched earth, alongside the men’s rooms in Craiglockhart where the hell of their tormented minds unfolds brilliantly. It is the fact that many of the words spoken are actually those of the characters that makes this such an effective production.

In an age that is becoming worryingly obsessed with the concept of military heroes and increasingly flamboyant methods of commemoration, it is refreshing to hear the truth of the Great War era spoken by those who were actually there. It is to the huge credit of both actors that they so convincingly recreate both characters to enable their words to have such an impact.

The mutual respect between the two characters grows to love during the performance to the extent that Sassoon, who was again wounded after returning to the Western Front, threatens to stab Owen in the leg should he consider a return.    

Of course Owen does return to the Front, though without telling Sassoon until he is actually there. He is determined to test himself and emulate the courage of Sassoon, of which he seems to be in awe. Probably Owen is also motivated to return by the injury to Sassoon, to ensure that those at the front still have a voice.

His death just a week before the armistice is signed (Owen’s mother received the telegram on Armistice Day) is a striking conclusion to this impressive production and leaves Sassoon to ensure Owen’s poems are shared and the voices of those who fought are heard.

Not About Heroes recreates the rare mix of naivety, heroism, guilt, fear and anxiety endured by Owen, Sassoon and countless others in The Great War as tangibly as if the theatre had filled with the smoke and stench of the battlefield. This production is a compelling and superbly performed insight to the realities of war.

Dave Jennings