Novel by Pat Barker, adapted for the stage by Nicholas Wright
Acting Out Again Productions
Jack Studio Theatre
In 1917, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, in "wilful defiance of military authority", wrote a critical indictment of those running the war.
Its forthrightness and accusations that the war was being needlessly prolonged by "political errors and insincerities" caused uproar and would normally have resulted in court-martial.
However, not wanting to feed public attention with the trial of a decorated soldier and published writer, the army saw to it that Sassoon was found unfit for service.
He was sent away to Scotland's Craiglockhart Hospital, a centre for the treatment of war neuroses, thereby promoting an alternative narrative. The British Library has a moving letter from Sassoon to his uncle in which he talks of "the people who wriggle out of the situation by saying I'm dotty".
It is with this expedient medical prognosis that the story of Regeneration begins. Sassoon comes under the care of pioneering psychologist W H R Rivers and befriends the youthful Wilfred Owen.
History has since provided evidence that Sassoon and Owen were also lovers in the brief time they shared together at Craiglockhart, but Olivier Award-winning playwright Nicholas Wright adapted the first of Pat Barker's trilogy to mark the centenary of the War, and weaves the motif of closeted love lightly through those of the War and its traumatising effects on its executors.
Sassoon had volunteered for the army even before war had been declared; he was supportive of the cause, suicidally courageous and received the Military Cross. What horrors he went through to capsize him and move him to write A Soldier's Declaration is unimaginable but we get a glimpse of what they might have been in this play.
Rivers's compassionate interactions with his patients, particularly with fictional character Billy Prior, also reveal much about the philosophical dilemmas faced by the medical professionals, and the everyday treatment and traumas endured by soldiers.
Wright / Barker's story is packed with thought-provoking views of heroism, conscientious objection, patriotism, duty and the irony of patching up the men using any means available, so they could be returned to the front line where the life expectancy of an officer was three months.
Under the direction of Oliver McFadden, the cast is cut down from its original eight to only five. Louis Raghunathan's Wilfred Owen lacks punch when reporting his own war experiences but is like an endearing puppy when besotted by Archie Moore's under-nuanced Sassoon, and it is the balanced Will Forester as William Rivers who best delivers the gravitas.
Hard-working Chloe Taplin punches above her weight as Billy Prior, also playing Robert Graves and Major Willard, whilst Sara Odeen-Isbister does her share of heavy lifting in all the other parts including Dr Yealland, the systematic-verging-on-sadistic anthesis to Rivers.
Between them, they provide a moving if not gut-wrenching outcome. Although I did not see the play's first production, I felt an absence, as if perhaps not only numbers but some of the material had also been cut. Many scenes are often short to the point of utility and progress held up by the setting of too much furniture which contributed little.
For a play that seemed to be presenting as about Sassoon and somewhat about Rivers, a lot of the focus was on Prior. And what was with the tape-to-tape recorder—that had me reaching for a book on the history of sound which confirmed magnetic tape was first patented in 1928. If the anachronism served a purpose, it failed to translate and I was left thinking it was taking the place of a taciturn character that had been excised.
The actions of our own leaders, dare I say through their own "political errors and insincerities", have conspired to put nationalism firmly on our agenda today and one could jest about parallels regarding sovereignty and the balance of power in Europe. Notwithstanding such resonance, with the anniversary of the armistice concluding the War on the Western Front only days away, Regeneration remains a play very much worth seeing on its own terms.
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti