Proud Haddock in association with Neil McPherson
Tony Harrison’s own 1992 production of this play at the National Theatre was a musical extravagance of theatrical effect that tried to disguise the fact that it was very thin on plot though heavy with information. With a cast of 21 women to 2 men, its cross-gender casting was far from blind.
Jimmy Walter’s production, the first revival since that première and timed as part of the Finborough’s First World War commemorations, has an entirely female cast of just six to provide the razzmatazz. They are aided by the intimacy of the theatre and confrontational contact but often take things at such a pace that there isn't time to take in all the content of Harrison’s bouncing rhymed verse.
The audience is first confronted with the unattributed statement, “I will give my life for peace,” displayed in three languages on the national flags of France, Britain and Germany before an opening scene in a World War I munitions factory where Letty Thomas as (male) sweeper upper introduces the female workforce of “canaries”—women tinged yellow by their contact with the explosives—and points out the lavatory cubicle introduced to accommodate the women now doing men’s jobs.
This early 20th-century Portaloo facilitates instant appearances but its function is a key factor in the argument now put forward by Eva Feiler as German scientist Justus von Liebig, founder of organic chemistry. As long ago as 1860, this “father of the fertiliser industry” saw the WC popularised by the UK flushing away the excrement that should replenish the soil, while the later development of the motor car put an end to the plentiful supply of horse manure.
Fart jokes (themselves an explosive reminder of future bombardments) are put aside as Fritz Haber, played with élan by Philippa Quinn, explains his “noble dream, of making Europe green,” extracting nitrogen from the air and synthesising ammonia while Rujenne Green as William Crookes presents a pioneer in atomic physics.
Letty Thomas is Hiram Maxim, inventor of the portable automatic Maxim machine gun, and Amy Marchant, his brother Hudson who developed a variety of explosives including smokeless gunpowder. James Puckle doesn’t make a personal appearance but we are told of his invention in the early eighteenth century of the Puckle Gun, which fired the “square rounds” that give this play its name, designed to inflict maximum pain and damage on Muslim Turks.
Nitrogen is a component of TNT and, as Fritz Haber’s pacifist wife Clara (Grace Goldman), a fellow chemist, declares, “the nitrogen you brought from way up high now blows the men you saved into the sky.” But Haber sincerely wants to end the slaughter. Though a Jew, he provides the anti-Semitic Kaiser with a poison gas, believing it will bring victory, and therefore peace, more quickly and that because it leaves the victim intact it is preferable to blowing them to bits. (Haber died in 1934 before the Nazis used gas to kill his people.) A line of gas-blinded soldiers, repeating that familiar stark image, is followed by a dirge.
The exchanges between Haber and Clara could be the nucleus for a powerful, more conventional play and are the key to this one. On the one hand, scientists who, like the physicists of World War II, are developing weapons in the belief that they will end war more quickly, and on the other the way in which beneficial scientific discoveries are exploited for military uses.
This is a play more concerned with facts than character or plot and it is the energy of the actors and the lively animation of the production that provide engagement, but you can’t help but get the message.