Pat Barker’s novel about the trio of great First World War poets, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, gives valuable insights into the lives of those who survived – or didn’t survive – that appalling catastrophe. This adaptation for the stage by Nicholas Wright works very well and the result is powerful and impressive. Through his friendships with Graves and Owen, Sassoon managed to salvage his sanity and carry on writing to wake up the public to the real horror of the mass slaughter.
The action takes place in the Edinburgh sanatorium where Sassoon spent some time after having publicly protested against the war. Graves – who was all but shot to pieces himself later on, and reported dead – persuaded the authorities that Sassoon was having a breakdown, to prevent him being shot for insubordination. At the sanatorium, Sassoon tells the doctor that he is not mad, but the world is. Luckily the doctor, Captain Rivers, is intelligent and sympathetic enough to listen to his point of view. All around him are officers with symptoms of shell-shock — they are dumb, dazed, suffering from hallucinations and recurrent nightmares. Many also suffer from guilt after seeing others slaughtered en masse.
Other doctors are not so humane as Capt. Rivers. We flinch as we watch how electric shock treatment, bullying and torture are used to “cure” soldiers who came back from the front not only wounded but traumatized. This is an issue a century later too. According to MOD figures, we have 11,000 soldiers today who are suffering from PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – because of what they have gone through in Afghanistan or Iraq. You cannot expect people to undergo or witness such things without deep, serious damage. In World War I, few had yet considered the impact on the human psyche of slaughter on an industrial scale. The hell of the battlefield was something that none of the generals had ever experienced themselves and conventional heroism was not enough.
Tim Delap gives a sensitive performance as Sassoon, and Steven Boxer takes the role of the complex, reflective Capt. Rivers, admirably. Christopher Brandon acts the brisker and less introverted Graves, whose protection probably saved his friend’s life. Garmon Rhys is convincing as Wilfred Owen, the somewhat diffident and gauche young Welshman, whose hero-worship of Sassoon grows into a friendly, working relationship. Sassoon drives Owen to re-write his war poems not once but over and over again, turning them into the iconic statements they are for us today. The poems anticipate and describe his own, tragic, early death, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” Jack Monaghan plays the NCO Billy Prior, from a Northern working-class background, who sees the war as a chance to improve his prospects.
In this centenary year we have all seen a lot of dramas and documentaries about WWI, but this one is still well worth seeing. It is powerful and gripping, full of atmosphere, and the bleak sets give a feeling of coldness that makes the warmth of friendship more poignant. Touring Consortium Theatre Company and Royal & Derngate, Northampton are to be congratulated on this timely and moving production.
Julia Gasper 19/11/2014.
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