Not About Heroes
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
In this WWI anniversary year, it is good to see a touring revival of Stephen Macdonald’s seminal 1982 play about two of our greatest war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
The play focuses on the last couple of years of the war when Sassoon and Owen met at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh and then their subsequent repatriation to the Western Front.
Sassoon was a well-established poet when he joined up in 1914, as many had with a sense of duty and bravado, that was quickly dispelled by the horrors of the trenches. His poetry changed from glorification of war to telling it how it was, inspiring the younger Wilfred Owen who was finding his own writing style.
In 1917, Sassoon won a Military Cross, but after refusing to return to active service threw his medal into the River Mersey and wrote a letter to his commanding officer expressing his feelings, which was read out in the House of Commons. To avoid court martial for treason, his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves organised it so that Sassoon was declared unfit for service and sent to Craiglockhart, a hospital which dealt with those suffering from shellshock and other mental health disorders.
Here too Owen is sent and, during his year of recovery, the two become firm friends, Sassoon mentoring Owen’s poetry while they (probably) fell in love.
Both return to the Front eventually: Sassoon, wounded by friendly fire, returns home and outlives the war; Owen is killed in France the week before armistice is signed.
The play takes the form of conversations between the two men interspersed with their poetry and letters and as such needs strong direction to bring out the drama and the pathos.
The piece gets off to a slow start—and, considering this is towards the end of the tour, seemed to take a while to find it’s feet. The set is excellent: evocative sections of wooden fence and wire and blasted trees indicating the Front with just a cluttered desk one side and an army bed the other for the hospital. But the set is poorly used by director Tim Baker, the men tending to walk in circles round the bed or the desk without much point to their movement.
Owain Gwynn plays the younger poet as very understated. I would have liked to have seen more evidence of the shellshock he’s suffering from and the trauma that inspired the poems. He just seems too controlled for someone invalided out for what we now term as PTSD and who wrote so vividly about the condition in "Mental Cases".
Daniel Llewelyn-Williams’s Sassoon is buttoned-up and rightly so, but he is also quite an eccentric character and that fails to come across in the first half.
The second half is better as we get back to the front and the conversations are reduced to letters between the two men, but it is all a bit too stylised for something that affected both so deeply and it is a while before we see their growing affection really materialise. It would have been good to have had some more pointers to their feelings for each other and more passion in their experiences.
I also didn’t understand why Sassoon didn’t change into uniform during the interval—it seemed incongruous that he was still in civvies when talking about being back at the front and being invalided to a military hospital.
The inherent problem in the writing is an assumption that the audience are familiar with the story, but many younger people are not and the direction did little to help in this respect. Fortunately, the poetry speaks for itself—both actors put the verses across really well—and it is very moving as we get into the second half to revisit these incredibly poignant lines.
Sadly not the best production of this play, but worth catching it for the poetry alone in a year that has reminded us what a waste it all was and how important it is to remember the huge sacrifice made by so many young men and families.