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Not About Heroes

Stephen MacDonald
Spartan Dogs in association with Giant Olive Theatre
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
(2011)

Not About Heroes production photo

The late Stephen MacDonald's 1982 play, appropriately revived at that time of year when we particularly remember our war dead, is closely based on the poems, letters and memoirs of its real-life protagonists, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Though framed by Sassoon's looking back from some years after Owen's death, shot by a sniper in the last days of the First World War, Not About Heroes traces their relationship from first meeting at Craiglockhart military psychiatric hospital near Edinburgh through to that end.

It is atmospherically set by designer Helen Coyston in Sassoon's bookcase lined study. Which becomes increasingly wreathed in wisps of smoke a the play progresses, partly no doubt to emphasise Aaron J Dootson's often dim and always atmospheric lighting which helps take the action from a Scottish hillside to the muddy trenches or that private world of Owen's letters to his mother, but also suggesting the smoke of guns, becoming more noticeable as the play progresses. Sassoon is in civvies, sports-jacketed in contrast to the uniform of Second Lieutenant Owen.

It is a beautifully constructed piece that shows Sassoon mentoring the younger man who hero-worshipped him, significantly influencing his development as a poet and particular poems but subtly portrays the growing affection between them. Sassoon introduced Owen to homosexual friends in the literary world and any homoerotic undercurrent is tactfully suggested, Sassoon rapidly withdrawing when Owen attempts an innocent embrace but later, relaxed and comfortable under the stars seeking greater contact. However, this is a play about poetry and war, not about sexuality.

Alex Brown's direction keeps the actors on stage in the darkness as it smoothly moves through place and time. It moves from Sassoon's narration, Owen's letters to his mother, and extracts from poems to recreated meetings with ease and subtle change of style.

Mark Oosterveen's Sassoon is outgoing but prepared rather than spontaneous in his narration but as his interest in Owen develops his well bred, golf-playing Britishness relaxes. This is a man who keeps his equanimity even when in pain.

Oliver Powell's long jawed looks are not like the Owen seen in photographs but they seem to perfectly fit the way he suggests the initially shy Owen, speaking hesitantly with a weak 'R' and an incipient stutter when feeling overcome. We see him gaining a confidence and boldness that are matched by the growing clarity of his verse.

Play, production and these two actors hold the audience through two concentrated acts . I found Not About Heroes engrossing and almost resented the interruption of the interval.

"Not About Heroes" runs at the Lion and Unicorn theatre until 3rd December 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton