Wars in the mind of poets

sassoon and own

Tim Delap (Siegfried Sassoon) and Garmon Rhys (Wilfred Owen) in Craiglockhart hospital Picture:: Donald Cooper

Regeneration

Wolverhampton Grand

****

BY chance there was an added poignancy to the Press night performance of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Pat Barker’s best selling novel – it was the 96th anniversary of the death of one of main characters of the drama, Wilfred Owen.

Owen died on 4 November, one week, almost to the very hour, that the armistice was signed to end hostilities, and a day before his promotion to lieutenant came through. His mother learned of his death as the church bells rang out on Armistice Day. He had been awarded the Military Cross for leading an action a month earlier.

Owen was a secondary character to his mentor Siegfried Sassoon who he met in Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, a hospital for psychologically damaged officers, and the setting for the play.

Owen was suffering from shell shock, Sassoon from politics. Sassoon, Marlborough and Cambridge, was awarded the MC in 1916 and although his men felt safe only in his hands, they called him Mad Jack because of his own suicidal exploits of bravery.

The “illness” which saw him sent to the officers’ mental hospital was a letter, A soldier’s declaration, which he sent to his commanding officer as a soldier on behalf of soldiers saying he would no longer obey orders because the war was being prolonged unnecessarily.

That could have been hushed up, except copies had Captain Riversalso been sent to his friends, his MP and newspapers. It could have been a cause for charges of cowardice, disobeying orders or worse, with imprisonment or even death at the end of it – a fate the Army did not want for one of its officer class, nor did it want its conduct of the war examined too closely in public.

So an intervention by Sassoon’s well connected friend Robert Graves with the explanation Sassoon had merely suffered a breakdown was accepted gratefully and Sassoon was shipped off to Edinburgh out of the limelight.

Tim Delap gives us a Sassoon who is sophisticated, educated, articulate and confident in all he does, even in his decision to return to France, despite his views of the running of the war, when he could have served out his time behind a desk, In Delap we had a Sassoon we could believe in.

Stephen Boxer as the Craiglockhart psychiatrist William Rivers

His doctor and sparring partner was Captain William Rivers, a Craiglockhart psychiatrist, beautifully played by Stephen Boxer in a performance full of compassion, feeling and, with a twinkle, some gentle humour to lift the gloom.

Garmon Rhys who plays the young Owen, a budding poet in awe of Sassoon, is in his first professional role after graduating from LAMDA this summer, not that you would have known it. This was a confident performance full of shades of emotion from hero worship to blazing anger.

Rivers and the two poets, along with Graves were real characters at the hospital and then we have Jack Monaghan as Billy Prior, a complete fiction as a north country working class officer with a chip on his shoulder and a voice that had been silenced by the horrors he saw. Like Sassoon, he found verbal sparring with Rivers was his salvation as he recovered his voice and his mind.

Lindy Whiteford kept everyone in order as Sister Rogers while we met a motley collection of damaged officers who saw spies everywhere, could not eat, or speak or walk when there was no physical reason, or had fictional wives who could never quite manage a visit.

The book, and through it the play, is a fictional account, admittedly based upon letters and first person accounts to add historical context, but it is an interesting examination of the dilemmas that might have faced Sassoon and Owen and it does give an idea of both the horrors both sides experienced in the First World War and the effect on the mind.

It suffers a little at the beginning from being a little episodic with some scenes managing only a couple of lines, but once the scene has been set, the changes settle down to a more relaxed pace as the different threads intertwine.

Directed by Simon Godwin the play develops a pleasing rhythm aided by some very slick scene changes involving at various times the entire staff of 12. Alex Eales setting is wonderfully flexible, aided by Lee Curran’s lighting, giving a hospital ward, dining room, Edinburgh bar, Rivers’ office and brutal London hospital treatment room and finally the quiet and serene Chelsea Physic Garden.

A mention too for Richard Pinner who devised a very simple, but clever and effective illusion and sound designer George Dennis who managed to shock everyone with the explosive sounds of war and madness.

I must confess I have never read Pat Barker’s book so can only judge the play on its theatrical merit and on that basis it stands smartly on its own two feet - Sir! It is not a sort of Pat Barker tribute act but very much a play making its own way in the world creating an interesting evening with another view of the war to end all wars. To 08-11-14

Roger Clarke

04-11-14 

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